Testing the human right to water in Detroit

October 1, 2014

In March, the beleaguered—some would say besieged—city of Detroit, Michigan announced it would begin shutting off water services to between 1,500 and 3,000 households every week. It seemed impossible at the time but officials quickly made good on the promise. Detroit, the former industrial powerhouse of one of the world’s richest countries, has seen better days. But water is an essential social service, a necessity of life, and the city lies in the middle of the Great Lakes, the world’s largest body of freshwater. How could the taps possibly run dry?

Over several weeks this spring, with local allies, the Council of Canadians researched and then drafted a report on the situation for the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation. We found that Detroit’s residents were given no warning, not even time to fill buckets, sinks and tubs, before their taps were turned off. Sick people had been left without running water and working toilets. People recovering from surgery were unable to wash or change bandages. Children could not bathe and parents had no water for cooking.

With two-thirds of the water cut-offs happening in homes with children, families were afraid to speak out since state policies require there to be working utilities in homes with children. In Detroit, child welfare authorities were removing children from their homes because the city had turned off their taps.

Shortly after receiving the joint report, which was endorsed by a number of local and U.S. groups and sent to the UN in June, Special Rapporteur Catarina de Albuquerque issued a statement declaring the mass water shut-offs in Detroit a violation of basic human rights. By that point a vibrant local movement for water justice was pushing back against the city’s water department and the international pressure helped. It’s uncertain whether this will be enough to stop and reverse the shut-offs, or to block behind-the-scenes talks about privatizing the utility.

The right to water and sanitation
Despite warnings from three special UN rapporteurs (housing, water and sanitation, and poverty) that basic human rights were being violated, U.S. President Barack Obama has remained shockingly silent on Detroit's water crisis. The situation is similar to and as difficult to comprehend as the Canadian government’s non-response to extreme water shortages and poor water and sanitation services in northern Indigenous communities in Ontario and Manitoba.

On July 28, 2010, the United Nations General Assembly voted (122 of 193 countries) in support of a resolution declaring clean, safe drinking water a human right. A year later, Maude Barlow, national chairperson of the Council of Canadians, published a report explaining what the resolution means for communities across the world struggling to access clean water and protect threatened drinking sources.

In Our Right to Water: A People’s Guide to Implementing the United Nations’ Recognition of Water and Sanitation as a Human Right, Barlow explains that every government is now required to develop a plan of action based on the “obligation to protect, respect, and fulfill” the right to water. The “obligation to respect” in that sentence means a country must refrain from any action or policy that interferes with the enjoyment of the human right. For example, no one should be denied basic water services because they are unable to pay for them.

In other words, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, through the actions of state-appointed Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, and Detroit mayor Mike Duggan are in violation of the human right to water by pursuing the shut-off policy. Upholding UN resolutions are often seen as a federal responsibility. Yet many would argue that lower levels of government (state and municipal) and the courts have the legal and moral authority—imperative even—to uphold international obligations where federal governments fail.

Detroit’s growing movement
The cut-off of Charity Hicks’s water services, and her subsequent arrest for warning neighbours to fill their tubs, sparked an outcry that galvanized Detroit. The beloved community leader passed away in July just when opposition to the cut-offs began gaining momentum.

Detroit residents organized direct actions outside of the offices of Homrich, the company contracted to turn off the taps. Local groups have held Freedom Fridays rallies inspired by North Carolina’s anti-austerity Moral Mondays, to draw attention to the attack in Detroit on democratic rights, worker pensions and benefits, and public services such as water delivery. Hollywood actor Mark Ruffalo, Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morella and other big names have added their support to the anti-cut-off movement.

On July 18, National Nurses United along with the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions organized a mass rally that drew thousands of people, including Ruffalo, to the city. Three days later, buckling under the growing pressure, the city suspended new cut-offs until August 25. By that point, over 120,000 Detroit residents had had their water shut off.

In the interim period, Canadian organizations including the local Windsor branches of the Council of Canadians and Canadian Union of Public Employees, sent a humanitarian convoy across the border to deliver 1,000 litres of clean water to the people of Detroit. The goal was to draw attention to the human rights violations happening in Windsor’s sister city, to call on President Obama to declare a public health crisis, and to demand a permanent stop to the cut-offs.

Despite this mounting pressure and international condemnation, on August 26 the city continued its cut-off program. It became a hot topic during Detroit’s bankruptcy trial, which began after the Labour Day weekend on September 2. Community groups, represented by lawyer Alice Jennings, requested that Detroit’s bankruptcy judge, Steven Rhodes, issue a temporary restraining order to halt the water cut-offs. Judge Rhodes, who in the past lamented the city’s program as bad publicity for Detroit, ordered both sides to come to a mediated settlement.

On September 17 (as the Monitor went to print), Rhodes postponed the bankruptcy hearings until September 29 and set a date of September 22 for lawyers to present their cases for and against the water program.

Privatization of water services
The water shut-offs put a spotlight on the larger dynamics at play in Detroit: deep racial and economic divides, globalization and the hollowing out of a once might industry, and austerity measures that include a push to privatize one of our most basic resources.

The Detroit People's Water Board, a local coalition promoting the human right to water, warns that city officials see the unpaid water accounts as “bad debt” and want to entice private companies to buy the city's water system. In June, Detroit News reported that Emergency Manager Orr was reviewing several private bids. Veolia Water, one of the world’s largest multinational water corporations, was hired to conduct a “critical assessment” of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, including suggestions for cost savings. Michael Mulholland, acting president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 207, called it an obvious step toward privatization.

Meanwhile, there is a regionalization plan on the table, endorsed by Mayor Duggan, which would create a Great Lakes Water Authority, touted as the best option for the city. However, the Detroit People’s Water Board and Food and Water Watch are concerned the deal is being negotiated behind closed doors, without any public input, and that it could also be on the pathway to privatization. The process gives no room to city council and Detroit residents to provide input on an important decision related to a basic public service. It remains to be seen how the regionalization plan would affect the most vulnerable, who are already hurt by the undemocratic management of the water system.

Globalization and the decline of Detroit
Some media reports and commentary portrayed the cause of the cut-offs as a simple unwillingness by households to pay for water services. Some of the comments condescendingly chide Detroiters for having all the wrong priorities: cable television, cigarettes and cell phones. For some people it is easier to demonize than to question a system that makes casualties of downtrodden people

The city of Detroit attempted to reach out to “wilfull non-payers” and low-income households with a 10-point plan and affordability fairs. But these failed to address the root problem, which is that many residents have no income at all.

When you are unemployed, paying a $150 water bill—one of the highest rates in the country and twice the national average—is not an option. Despite water rates in the city having increased 119% in the last decade, another 8.7% hike was approved in June. These increases were to pay for years of lax enforcement, neglected leaky pipes and deteriorating infrastructure coupled with a plunging tax base in a city where 40% of the population is living in poverty.

Detroit was once the fifth largest city in the United States with a population of close to two million people in its 1950s prime. Over the next several decades, automobile companies—the main source of employment—gradually left town. Encouraged by neoliberal trade deals like the NAFTA, the Big Three—Ford, Chrysler and General Motors—shifted production to Mexico, low-wage U.S. states, overseas facilities, and on some occasions Canadian cities like Windsor when the federal government offered investment incentives.

"Detroit is an extreme case of problems that have afflicted every major old industrial city in the U.S.," said Thomas Sugrue, author of The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, in a July 2013 interview with the Huffington Post. “It's been 60-plus years of steady disinvestment, depopulation and an intensive hostility between the city, the suburbs and the rest of the state.”

Yet as observers around the world have come to appreciate in these past few years, the decline of Motor City was unprecedented. The population was down to just over 700,000 in 2010. More than 80% of residents are African-American. Mike Smith, a United Autoworkers archivist at Wayne State University's Walter Reuther Library, told the same Huffington Post reporter the union has lost more than two-thirds of its national membership since 1978: from 1.5 million to roughly 400,000 members today.

By failing to develop a viable plan for its crumbling auto industry, by leaving it all to the whims of corporations “freed” by the neoliberal rules of globalization, Detroit city managers were unable to generate the revenue required to pay the thousands of pensions promised to workers, or to fund a long term plan to provide affordable essential services like water and heat to a much smaller tax-paying population.

Detroit’s bankruptcy

Kevyn Orr and others don’t see the causes, just the symptoms. Their only concern is shrinking Detroit’s more than $18 billion debt, $5.8 billion of which is for water and wastewater services, through hard austerity measures like the cut-offs.

Wallace Turbeville, a senior fellow at Demos and author of The Detroit Bankruptcy, calls the $18 billion figure a “fantasy number” and raises questions about why Detroit is not focused on generating revenue rather than making cuts. He also told Democracy Now that the $5.8 billion in debt for water and wastewater services does not account for Detroit’s 700,000 people but actually covers about 40% of Michigan’s population. Turbeville believes Detroit’s bankruptcy is part of right-wing plan by Governor Snyder to “restructure the politics” of a historically democratic Detroit.

And if Obama remains aloof, it is perhaps because he, too, has shown more willingness to bail out big corporations before a people in need. The not-for-profit news source Propublica reports that US$50.7 billion in federal money was disbursed to General Motors and another US$10.7 billion to Chrysler as part of the ongoing bailout of the financial system since the 2008 crash. The payoff? Despite Chrysler declaring bankruptcy in the U.S., it was turned over to Italy’s Fiat SpA and recently struck a deal with Jeep to produce vehicles in China.

Rather than pursing austerity measures that are attacking jobs, health care, pensions and water services, the goal should be to develop policies that bring the cost of living down in the long term. That includes reducing the outrageous cost of water services. Financial services company Standard & Poor released a report in mid-September, called Income Inequality Weighs on State Tax Revenues, confirming that high levels of poverty are actually bad for business. The report says that rising income inequality and the concentration of wealth in the hands of the top 1% siphons revenue from the state, limiting funding for education, infrastructure and social programs while weakening the rate of economic recovery.

Detroit’s green future
Despite the dark cloud hanging over Detroit and its bankruptcy hearings, there is a growing movement paving the way for a greener, more equitable future in the city.

There are 1,300 community gardens as a result of an initiative called Urban Roots, a nine-week low-cost training program run by local organizations for the past ten years. The Stahelin Street Tigers Block Club and Sierra Club in Detroit are helping households set up rain gardens to protect the Rouge and Detroit rivers from storm water pollution. These are only two of the green infrastructure initiatives that are cropping up around Detroit, and more needs to be done to address long-term employment needs, but together these projects shine a light on an alternative to large-scale industrial production.  

On the water crisis, it’s clear that Detroit’s future water management plan must include community input, especially from the most vulnerable and marginalized, if there is to be any popular buy-in. While governments continue to push neoliberal and austerity policies that have long failed the people of Detroit, how the city moves forward could have a ripple effect on improving democratic rights, correcting existing racial and economic inequalities, and providing an example for other post-industrial cities to follow.

Emma Lui is the national water campaigner for the Council of Canadians.