Most of us take it for granted that if we turn on the faucet, water is just going to come out. For at least 17,000 residents of Detroit, Mich., that isn’t the case, and hasn’t been so for quite some time, as the city chose to turn off their water in retaliation for unpaid water bills. The city’s decision has drawn a debate over whether or not access to clean water is a human right and if what the city is forcing on its residents is a humanitarian crisis.
It takes as little as a $150 unpaid bill to be eligible for having your water turned off in the city, despite the fact that those who find $150 simply too far out of reach to pay are the ones who are most likely to need the service. It’s for exactly that reason that even the United Nations is condemning the city for its actions against the poorest of its residents. “Disconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights,” the U.N. officials said in a news release, according to Al Jazeera. “Because of a high poverty rate and a high unemployment rate, relatively expensive water bills in Detroit are unaffordable for a significant portion of the population.”
The U.N. cites the health concerns that come from lack of water, stating that lack of bathing, toilet flushing and hand washing can lead to sickness and cause simple illnesses to spread. Even beyond the health aspect, by turning off the water the city dooms those in poverty to cycle even further into it, making it impossible to ever earn the money they would need to pay off debt. It leaves them with no ability to wash clothes for work or to cook at home, forces them to need to purchase water and other beverages and otherwise increase household expenses.
Even more dire are the reports that the city is removing children from homes without water, separating families against their will.
While residents are feeling the brunt of this new policy, losing water over a few hundred dollars of outstanding debt or even having liens put on their homes and other property, businesses, who owe a far greater portion of the missing fees, are getting off with no punishment. Golf courses, local sports teams and other large for profit businesses are said to owe tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars each to the city for their own unpaid water bills. Those businesses, of course, have seen no shut offs at all.
This obviously unbalanced enforcement over unpaid bills combined with the fact that a number of those who are delinquent believe that their charges haven’t been accurate at all has led to massive backlash, culminating in a 5,000 member march through Detroit where activists in town for a progressive conference joined with locals to demand that the water be turned back on. “Chanting, ‘Fight! Fight! Fight! Water is a human right!’ and ‘Whose water? Our water!’ about 5,000 Detroit residents and allies from across the country—including many who were in town for the annual Netroots Nation blogger conference—marched from the Cobo convention center to Hart Plaza near the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department,” reports Ruth Conniff from The Progressive. Also on the scene was actor Mark Ruffalo, who told the gathered marchers, “What’s happening in Detroit is a model for what’s happening in the nation. Instead of a nation for the 0.1 percent, it should be a nation for all humanity.”
Has the pressure on the city worked? It may have. Detroit has announced that it is putting a moratorium on turning off anymore households’ water for the next 15 days. The city says the pause is meant to give residents a chance to catch up on their bills, although the payment plans being offered may still be too high for many of the nearly half the city that is currently behind. The average bill, according to the Detroit News, is $540, and it would take a payment of about $175 to stop the city from turning the water off in those homes.
The city was closing off residential homes at a pace of 1,000 a week for the first two weeks of July, so any sort of slow down is good news. But if Detroit is really interested in regaining financial solvency, they will apply the same tactics to the businesses that are hundreds of thousands behind in their own bills as it does to the struggling families who had a choice to either skip the water bill for a few months, or skip the electricity, or the mortgage, or the groceries. Until it uses the same tactics on big business that it does on struggling home owners and renters, they’ve shown that this has little to do with their financial debt, and everything to do with punishing the poor for not putting the city ahead of feeding, clothing and caring for their own families.