Nobel laureate Amartya Sen famously suggested that famines do not occur in democracies, because accountable governments will do everything they can to avoid mass starvation. The same reasoning should apply to clean drinking water; like food, it is a resource that is indispensable for our survival and wellbeing.
And yet recent events in the United States offer depressing insights about the limits of Sen’s dictum, and about how democracies can fail the people they are ostensibly supposed to serve. In 2014, the municipal government of Flint, Michigan, stopped purchasing water from Detroit and began sourcing it from a nearby river. The decision was motivated by cost concerns. Worries about the quality of the water were disregarded.
The river water, it turned out, corroded the city’s aging pipes; by the time it left the taps, it could contain high levels of toxic lead. And yet nobody seemed to care. The city and state governments looked the other way, even after companies and hospitals declared the water unfit for use and switched to other sources.
Flint’s residents complained of the water’s colour and taste. But no matter how loud they raised their voices – either alone or collectively – they were disparaged as ignorant or dismissed as serial complainers. Even after doctors presented evidence that lead levels in the blood of the city’s children had doubled in the space of a year, the objections of the people of Flint fell on deaf ears.
The US may be one of the world’s most successful democracies, with regular elections and a representative government that is supposed to be – in Abraham Lincoln’s famous phrase – “of the people, by the people, for the people.” And yet not one level of government took the necessary measures to ensure that the residents of Flint had access to safe drinking water.
And Flint is not a solitary case; it is emblematic of a global problem. Millions of people worldwide lack access to clean drinking water. All too often, the world’s poor are forced to drink contaminated water, drill holes in pipelines, or buy bottled water that is far more expensive than what flows from the taps of their richer neighbors. And the issue is only growing in importance as competition for drinking water heats up.
When a government proves unresponsive or incompetent, a common prescription is to limit its influence, so that the power of the market can be unleashed. But when it comes to essential resources – such as water – this approach becomes morally repugnant. Allocating clean water, for example, to those able to pay the most for it results in situations where industrial applications win out over individual needs, leaving many with none.
The real problem is not water scarcity; it is that existing supplies are unequally distributed and thus unaffordable to the poor. This might be tolerable when it comes to ordinary goods – not everyone can have a yacht; but when it comes to an essential resource, we must ensure access on an equitable basis.
That means we have to find a better way to govern resources like water. For a message to be effective, it must reach and influence those in control – whether they are elected officials, regulators, or private actors. Elections provide people with the opportunity to vote, but that is not the same thing as giving them a voice, much less ensuring that raised voices are listened to.
Flint is not only a wake-up call for democracy in the US; it is a stark lesson in the need for better governance worldwide. When cost-cutting efforts produce drinking water that fails to meet basic health standards, “government for the people” has been seriously eroded.
As the late Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom demonstrated, ordinary people are capable of sharing resources and avoiding the “tragedy of the commons.” And yet the imperative for action lies with those in control of essential resources, not with those in need of them. If the problem of equitable access is to be solved, authorities must fulfill their responsibility to the governed, which means listening, learning, and ultimately leading the effort to address it. - Project Syndicate