Thousands of the some 700,000 people who call Detroit home are currently living without access to water after the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department turned off their water because they hadn’t paid their bills.
As the shut-offs occur without warning from the department, residents don’t have time to fill buckets, sinks and tubs with water. This concerns human rights activists, who point out that as a result, “Sick people are left without running water and running toilets. People recovering from surgery cannot wash and change bandages. Children cannot bathe and parents cannot cook.”
It’s a practice that has been in place in Detroit for years, even though residents of the city plagued by high unemployment and a poverty rate of around 40 percent have struggled to keep up with water rates that have increased about 119 percent over the past decade.
The average monthly water bill in the city is currently around $75 per household.
Also contributing to bill delinquency are the “smart meters” that the state installed on homes. After these were installed, residents were asked to determine how much they owed, based on meter readings, rather than being issued a bill by the department. These meters reportedly read backwards, as well, meaning that residents could be charged for previous tenants’ water useage.
According to the water department, city residents owe about $118 million — a figure that does not include what is owed by residents on payment plans or by those who have declared bankruptcy. Those who fail to pay their bills have the overdue charges rolled into their property taxes, putting an individual’s home at risk for foreclosure if they are unable to pay.
Black residents are predominantly affected by the loss of access to water. As children live in two-thirds of the currently affected residences, child welfare authorities have had to remove some of these children from their homes because of a requirement that all children live in a home with working utilities.
Concerning for Maude Barlow, national chairperson of the Council of Canadians, is that the water department has pledged to turn the water off for all 120,000 residences with delinquent accounts — about 3,000 each week — in the city by the end of the summer. However, Barlow says the department has made no plans to shut off the water for any corporation or institution that has failed to pay its water bills.
“What is happening in Detroit is a social crime and a violation of the human right to water and sanitation as recognized by the United Nations,” Barlow said. She explained that the right being violated is the “Obligation to Respect,” which says that a once is given to an individual, that right can’t be taken away.
Part of the reason that so many people in the city have been delinquent on their water bills is that the department’s revenue structure is based on a city that was once home to millions. Since the population of Detroit has dramatically decreased over the years, the burden of funding the water department has fallen upon the city’s dwindling population.
“Detroit is a victim of decades of market driven neoliberal policy that put business and profit ahead of public good,” Barlow said. “Social security programs have been slashed and their delivery privatized. Investment in essential infrastructure has been slashed…”
She also called this a human rights issue, explaining that there hasn’t been much coverage on the water shut-offs in the mainstream media because the people losing their water are not “middle class white people.” This has left some wondering if the general consensus is that “Detroit is a lost cause and the people there deserve what they are getting.”
Barlow took to her blog to ask President Barack Obama and other U.S. politicians to intervene, since cutting off a person’s access to water — a substance humans need to survive — is “an affront to the notion that we have advanced very far in our understanding of human rights or in its practice.”
“We all stand guilty if we do not shout out against this terrible injustice on our continent.”