flint water protests Bill Pugliano/ Stringer via getty images

When Democracy Fails the People

The Nobel laureate Amartya Sen asserted that famines don't happen in democracies, because the government is accountable to its citizens – a dictum that should also apply to water. But, as the recent revelations about the water supply in Flint, Michigan, demonstrate, elected leaders are more than capable of failing their people.

NEW YORK – 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.

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