The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Water is a human right. It’s time we start treating it as one.

The lack of access to affordable, clean water has been a problem in our society for decades. (iStock)

Debbie Dingell and Rashida Tlaib, both Democrats, represent Michigan’s 12th and 13th Congressional Districts, respectively, in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Stay home, wear a mask, keep your distance and wash your hands.

These critical safety measures were imprinted onto our brains nearly a year ago when the covid-19 pandemic began. Hand-washing to prevent the spread of this deadly virus may seem like a no-brainer; after all, it’s what we’ve done for decades to prevent the spread of disease and maintain hygiene.

But some of the same governments telling people to wash their hands can still legally shut off their water if they can’t afford the bill. In most places in the United States, water departments source, sanitize and provide water for homes and businesses. Most are public utilities. A few, regrettably, are private, for-profit systems. Almost all are monopolies.

This system gives them the power to develop harmful habits and ignore calls to change. In Michigan’s 13th Congressional District alone, more than 3,000 families have been cut off from water access. But this is not just a Michigan issue. In Virginia, more than 500,000 residents are behind on water bills. In Pennsylvania, it’s 183,000. Across the country, many have seen water rate increases of 30 percent in less than a decade. Meanwhile, millions of workers have lost their jobs in the past year. The root causes of water inaccessibility were exposed by this public health crisis, and they cannot be ignored.

And for many Americans, water shutoffs are often only the beginning. Even after they pay off outstanding debt or arrange for payment plans, reconnection fees further penalize them. We need to move beyond treating missed payments as a moral failing and acknowledge the reality of families struggling as they try to make ends meet.

As water bills continue to skyrocket, governments routinely fail to meet their end of the bargain by not investing in infrastructure upgrades. As we know all too well in Michigan, the people of Flint are still suffering the deadly consequences of ignored, crumbling water systems and indifference from officials trying to save a few pennies. Residents were paying to maintain an antiquated system, only to be poisoned.

Food and Water Watch reports that as of January 2021, 56 percent of Americans — or 183 million people — live in states without any shutoff protections during this pandemic. Last year, only 20 states banned disconnections. Eleven of those moratoriums have already expired, and at least 226 private water utilities have also allowed their moratoriums to expire.

This pandemic didn’t create this crisis; it just made it worse. As with many systemic inequalities, covid-19 shined a spotlight on the suffering of many of our neighbors. Indeed, the lack of access to affordable, clean water has been a problem in our society for decades.

Last month, along with 77 of our colleagues, we introduced a measure that would create a $1.5 billion fund for local communities to assist with paying water bills for low-income residents. This legislation, supported by nearly 100 organizations, would require all cities and counties to reconnect service and impose a shutoff moratorium to receive federal funding. These requirements will not only help residents and local governments in the short term by providing access to water and funding to assist our front-line communities; they will also provide long-term solutions that will ensure everyone permanently has access to clean, affordable water.

Most Americans have taken this virus seriously. They wear masks. They socially distance. And they wash and sanitize. They stay away from friends and take care of family. Most of this involves little to no help from the government. So that same government cannot make it harder for us to comply with basic common sense.

Our families need access to clean, affordable and safe water to combat the spread of the coronavirus, maintain good hygiene, and avoid other deadly viruses, bacteria and illnesses. In the wealthiest nation on earth, there should not be a single family without water. We’ve had enough of punishing people for being poor, leaving them susceptible to this deadly pandemic and other daily dangers simply because they cannot afford their water bill. It is time to take our public health seriously and guarantee water as a human right. Water is a human right. It’s time we start treating it as such.

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