Water Justice

The mission of the Potomac Riverkeeper Network is to protect the public’s right to clean water.  To me, this necessarily includes the concept of Water Justice. What is water justice, and why is it important? We all agree, or we should, that every person on the planet has a right to clean water. I could elaborate on that, but do I really need to? It’s simple: if I have clean water, so should you.

That then gets me to what water justice is. Simply stated, it is making sure that decisions made and actions taken derive first from an understanding and belief that no one should be deprived of clean water.

Last week, I had the good fortune to be invited to attend a Water Justice Forum at the Howard University Law School with a group of eminent scholars and activists brought together by Professor Carlton Waterhouse who leads the law school’s Environmental Justice Center.  Participants included Monica Lewis Patrick, who gave a rousing keynote addressing the injustice associated with the shut off of water and wastewater services in Detroit suffered by residents who were unable to pay their bills — and the failure of the city to help them to do so.  She told of the efforts of young men in the neighborhood to carry jugs of water to their neighbors so that they could stay in their homes and their work to organize not only to prevent further shut offs, but to ensure that the water they receive is both affordable and fit to drink.  

Detroit is, of course, just down the road from the best known drinking water crisis in recent years in the U.S. A few years ago, residents of Flint, Michigan found themselves in the midst of a crisis most of us can’t begin to imagine: the water from their kitchen taps was no longer safe to drink. A series of bad decisions by the utility and every level of government from the Emergency Manager in Flint to the U.S. EPA subjected the populace to lead levels so damaging to public health that the affected population will be injured for life. The contamination was widespread, systemic, and longstanding.

The causes of this disaster were many — a switch to a contaminated source of drinking water to save money, the failure to implement required corrosion control measures, the failure to replace lead service lines, and more. But those decisions would never have been made except for the fact that most of those affected by the contamination were poor and persons of color and, as such, least able to motivate their politicians to act.

So perhaps Flint begins to illustrate what water justice is and why it’s important. You would think we would all agree that every person on the planet has a right to clean water. But the U.S. abstained from the vote by the United Nations General Assembly in 2010 to recognize “the right to safe and clean drinking water as a human right.” Water is essential to life — no one can really quibble with that fact, but it is not yet a human right.  

Until it is — and until there is a way to enforce that right — all the more important to enforce the rights the public does have under federal, state, and local laws and regulations. So that’s what we do at PRKN — and we strive to do so for everyone in the watershed.  We believe that everyone not only has the right to safe drinking water, but also the right to access, use and safely enjoy the beautiful waterways that we have in our region. Franky, it is a big job trying to make clean water a reality for almost 6 million people, but if we start with those for whom access to the bounty of free, local rivers is the only water-based recreation they’ll ever know, we are on the right track.