Is water a commodity, a service, or a right? Recently, the debate has raged.
Daniel Van Abs, a water policy professor at Rutgers University, raised that question in a recent editorial published in NJ Spotlight. Van Abs is a water policy professor at Rutgers University who served as senior director for planning and science with the New Jersey Highlands Council, a water-protection implementation body. He has since retired from state government.
Van Abs posed this question in his post: "Is water, as the U.N. states, a fundamental human right? Or is it a commodity that must be purchased at the going rate? Or is it a public service, in which the focus is on satisfying a social goal for provision of general needs?"
"Our history shows us that water supply has aspects of all three, which makes for a muddled policy setting. What do we do when basic water services exceed a customer’s ability to pay? As water rates rise to address the costs of system rehabilitation, enhanced drinking-water treatment, and source-water protection, we need to make sense of this mess," he continued.
Detroit officials sparked protests last year by shutting off water service for thousands of delinquent customers, a move that prompted questions about whether shutoffs violate human rights. "The city, which continues to close as many as 400 accounts a day, has been widely criticized for its actions," CBS News reported. United Nations advisers have argued that Detroit violated human rights during a frenzy of water shutoffs.
Cities other than Detroit have also used water shutoffs to handle ratepayer delinquency. "In Michigan, Hamtramck, Warren, Pontiac, Eastpointe, Romulus and other cities have shut off delinquent customers as a way to improve collections. Elsewhere, so have other big cities such as Baltimore and St. Louis," the Detroit Free Press reported.
Van Abs noted that New Jersey is no stranger to ratepayer delinquency. "New Jersey has areas of high poverty that have lost most of their industrial water customers. And much of the state’s water-supply infrastructure is old, if not decrepit," he wrote.
To Van Abs, there are problems with calling water a guaranteed public service. "The costs could be handled like many other public services (such as police or courts), through the property tax, with local governments paying the water utility to provide the service. Doing so would remove incentives for efficient water use, unless provisions are made to limit the service by household to only what is necessary. Just imagine the problems with this approach. Government would have to track the number of people per household to ensure that a single-person household and a five-person household are provided for equitably," he said.
There are also problems with calling water a commodity, since it means water shutoffs if customers cannot pay. "Clearly, this approach is not socially acceptable for those of limited means," Van Abs writes.
What if water were treated as a basic human right? For utilities to be empowered to treat service as such, policy changes would be needed in many places, including New Jersey.
"The problem is that New Jersey has no routine system for helping poor households afford water (and sewer) services. For residential energy, the NJ Board of Public Utilities regulates essentially all providers, and New Jersey has established several programs for temporary and long-term assistance. The same is not true of water supply utilities, since there are hundreds of government and privately owned water utilities in New Jersey. Establishing a unique household assistance program in each of these utilities would be an administrative nightmare, and some are too small or serve too poor an area to provide this aid," Van Abs wrote.
"A broader approach is needed. New Jersey needs to take a hard look at how its poorest households will maintain access to water utility services as water and sewer rates increase. We shouldn’t allow the Detroit question to become the New Jersey problem," Van Abs wrote.