When Democracy Fails the 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.

Flint’s residents complained of the water’s color 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.