Detroit demonstrators: Water is a human right; restore it to those who can’t pay

On July 18, three thousand people marched through the streets of Detroit demanding that the Detroit Water and Sewage Department restore water service to those whose service has been shut off  for non-payment.

On July 21, the department announced that it is temporarily suspending water shutoffs.

The department in April began shutting off water service to people who owed $150 or whose accounts were two months in arrears. By June, 3,000 customers a week were losing water service.

Detroit’s aggressive campaign of denying water service, began a month after Detroit’s Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr issued a request for proposals to privatize Detroit’s water system, which serves nearly 40 percent of Michigan’s population.

Orr was appointed emergency manager by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder in 2013 after Snyder declared Detroit to be in a state of financial emergency.

Critics of  Orr’s water privatization plan argue that the decision to shut off water to thousands of customers, most of whom are African-Americans, is the result of Orr’s and the governor’s effort to sweeten the privatization deal by clearing up delinquent accounts.

The city’s aggressive move to shut off water has created a water crisis in Detoit.

The plan to privatize Detroit’s water and the city’s water crisis share common roots.

Both are the result of the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath, the Great Recession, which reduced the city’s tax revenue and increased poverty in the city.

After the city’s tax revenue plunged and the State of Michigan reduced Detroit’s share of the state’s revenue, Detroit filed for bankruptcy.

As a result of the bankruptcy filing, Orr began trying to sell of public assets.

The jewel of these assets is the the Detroit water system, which serves 127 Michigan communities as well as Detroit. The Wall Street Journal reports that the water system’s revenues total about $1 billion a year and that despite Detroit’s hard times, revenues continue to exceed expenses.

The Great Recession also cost Detroit thousands of jobs, which increased the city’s already high poverty rate. Nearly 40 percent of Detroit’s residents have income at or below the federal poverty level.

The high poverty rate means that many Detroit residents can’t afford the necessities of life such as water, which over time has grown more expensive.

During the last decade, Detroit water rates have increased 119 percent, and in June, the City Council approved another rate increase raising the cost of water by 8.7 percent.

A recent report by a panel of experts convened by the United Nations to investigate Detroit’s water crisis found that “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.”

Cutting off water to people who can’t afford to pay “constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights,” said Catarina de Albuquerque, one of the UN experts investigating Detroit’s water crisis.

At the July 18 demonstration, Jean Ross, co-president of National Nurses United (NNU), the primary sponsor of the march, said that cutting off water creates a public health risk.

“We need clean water for proper sanitation to combat the growth and spread of multiple infectious diseases and pandemics,” said Ross. “We need clean water for a safe and healthy environment. We demand the guarantee that all Detroit residents have immediate and full access to clean water.”

Speakers also said that access to clean water shouldn’t depend on a person’s ability to pay for it.

“The government didn’t give us the water, it is a natural resource,” said Dennis Williams, president of the UAW. “It is the peoples’ resource. It is not owned by corporations, it is not owned by city hall, it’s owned by the people of this land. It is our job united together to take back our government.”

Speakers at the demonstration also criticized the emergency manager’s plan to privatize Detroit’s water system.

“Privatization of water has already started harming Michiganders,” said Monica Lewis-Patrick, founder of We the People of Detroit, a community group leading the fight against the water cutoffs. “This issue is beyond Detroit. Detroit is the tip of the spear. . .  As goes Detroit, so goes Michigan and so goes the nation. Stop the privatization. Restore the water.”

Speakers at the demonstration said that the solution to Detroit’s water crisis won’t be solved through privatization and offered other solutions.

US Rep. John Conyers said that instead of going after those who can least afford to pay, Detroit officials should “get the corporations to pay off hundreds of thousands of dollars they owe.”

The Guardian reports that 21,000 businesses, schools and other non-residential properties owe $46 million in unpaid water bills but that the city has made no effort to collect these unpaid bills.

US Rep. Keith Ellison, author of HR 1579, which would authorize a financial transactions tax, also known as a Robin Hood Tax, had a similar message.

“Instead of shutting people’s water off, why don’t we raise the taxes on these corporations?” said Ellison “We have a bill that would tax the transactions on stocks, bonds and derivatives so people can meet their basic needs like water.”

“This dangerous public health crisis is further proof that we don’t have a bankrupt city – we have a bankrupt system,” said John Armelagos, president of the Michigan Nurses Association. “It’s disgraceful to have children in the wealthiest nation on Earth on the edge of living in third-world conditions. . . Water is a human right and Kevyn Orr should put human needs above any agenda set by corporations that only want to further exploit Detroit.”