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Wednesday, 23 July 2014 06:04

The End Game of Shutting Off Residential Water in Detroit Is a Likely Privatization Attempt

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 waterfaucet(Photo: kiranghata)

The privatization of municipal water services is a potential looming reality in Detroit.

According to a June 14 Detroit Free Press article, the emergency manager appointed to administer a state-mandated bankruptcy of the city has been actively exploring turning pubic water services into private profit: 

Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr’s office is studying several bids to privatize the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and could have a selection process completed within two weeks, a spokesman said Monday.

But Orr spokesman Bill Nowling would not release any information about which companies submitted bids by Sunday’s deadline to operate and manage the system relied on by millions of people in southeast Michigan. Nowling said the bids are considered confidential under a federal mediation order.

It hasn't happened yet, in part due to legal, political and PR positioning - including the 15-day temporary reprieve in residential water shut-offs resulting from large protests last week in Detroit.

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One reason you can be almost certain that the residential shut-offs will resume is a point made on Next City, a website focusing on "inspiring better cities": "As activists point out, DWSD [Detroit Water and Sewerage Department] is a much more appealing purchase if it loses its debt." In short, by cutting off residents with growing unpaid water bills, the DWSD becomes a more attractive acquisition to the private market. 

Political protests, negative media coverage and ongoing activism could cause the bankruptcy court to force a different outcome than complete privatization: a public-private partnership (in which DWSD would pay a management firm to run the agency) or - the least unlikely given the pro-corporatism statements and actions of Emergency Manager Orr - keeping DWSD a public non-profit service for residents and area businesses.

That Orr would have directed or permitted the DWSD to cruelly accelerate water shut-offs during the Detroit summer heat speaks to the indifference of those running the bankruptcy process toward the people of limited income actually living in Detroit. As the Detroit Free Press detailed in a July 19 article, "Life without water makes for some difficult choices for Detroit residents":

A single mother, living in the blighted Brightmoor neighborhood in northwest Detroit, keeps a jug of water by the toilet for flushing.

She takes a shower when she picks her daughter up at a relative’s home.

She heats up store-bought water in a microwave to wash her 6-year-old’s face and hands...

The water shutoff situation in Detroit has reached a boiling point. For many low-income Detroiters, the city’s push for water shutoffs due to unpaid bills is creating a crisis.

It is difficult for those in air-conditioned homes who turn on the tap at will when they are thirsty or take showers after a sweaty day at work to understand the inconveniences of having no access to a water supply, including the inability to routinely flush a toilet. 

Nonprofit Quarterly conjectures that the hardship being visited upon thousands of Detroit residents may be premeditated to create a mini-"shock doctrine." Following this theory, the bankruptcy backers (including Michigan's Republican Tea Party Governor Rick Snyder) intentionally want to create pain and crisis:

Perhaps, however, there is a perverse madness and genius in Detroit Water’s strategy to turn off the taps on over 100,000 residential customers. “Report after report has shown privatized services to be more expensive and inefficient than their publicly owned counterparts,” Milne writes. “It's scarcely surprising that a large majority of the public, who have never supported a single privatization, neither trust the privateers nor want them running their services.” There’s the clue to Detroit’s strategy: make the public sector water system even more detestable than the potential corporate alternatives, so that the citizens of this distressed city would want to see something other that Detroit Water and Sewerage running the show.

Privatization, Nonprofit Quarterly points out, doesn't necessarily make public services more efficient; in fact, corparatization frequently adds costs to basic governmental responsibilities, in order to ensure a profit:

Around the world, in contrast to the almost knee-jerk privatization solution proposed for any and all issues in the U.S., the trend is to renounce and reverse water privatization. Writing for the Guardian, Seumas Milne says “privatization isn’t working.”

“The reality,” he writes, “has been private monopolies, perverse subsidies, exorbitant prices, woeful under-investment, profiteering and corporate capture.”

Cities in the U.S. are beginning to turn against water privatization. Although the mayor of Reading, Pennsylvania, the nation’s poorest city, apparently wants to sell the city’s water system, the city council voted unanimously to reject privatization. Despite an ad in the local press calling for the termination of union contracts as a prelude for selling its water and sewerage system, the City of Fort Wayne, Indiana, announced that it has no interest in the idea.

Last week, BuzzFlash at Truthout posted a commentary entitled, "Shutting Off Water of Citizens in Detroit: Treating People Like Things and Corporations Like People," in which we concluded: "Either the people who live in Detroit will triumph with the rebuilding of an energetic, inclusive and sustainable city made up of proud neighborhoods - or appointed financial managers will call the shots, ensuring that businesses rake in profits off the backs of city residents, in a corporate zone where people are treated like things."

Detroit is a Great Lakes city. Lake Erie and Lake Huron are within relatively short distances. A river runs between the Motor City and Windsor, Ontario. Lake St. Clair lies just to the east of the downtown. Amidst the fossil of derelict capitalism that disfigures much of what was once a thriving, vibrant urban center, freshwater is near at hand in abundance, unlike cities built in the desert or hamlets in the Sahara Desert. There is no lack of water to keep humans alive and provide essential services such as showering and toileting.

There are those, however, who see profit flowing through the water system of DWSD, and if a family cannot afford water, under the logic of profit, it makes sense to cut them loose; they are disposable in the name of privatization.

From the beginning, declaring Detroit bankrupt was an effort by Gov. Snyder, a venture capitalist, and the Michigan legislature to sell city property and agencies off to the highest bidder, if they could get away with it.

Unless the uprising against treating people as things and cities as carcasses to be picked apart by profiteers continues to grow in strength, the privatizers may win.

The thirst of Detroit's citizens for assistance in their survival is real and acute. They need more than donations of profiteered bottled water (which is happening in some cases, so that the Nestle corporation can gain PR for privatized water in plastic containers); they need the return of citizens-first government and public services for the common good.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.