By Kim Hunter
Among the many items keeping Detroit in the spotlight of late has been families without water. Generally speaking, when we think of folks without water we think of crisis and or developing countries that need better infrastructure to get water to the people. Detroit, for all its challenges, is in the wealthiest nation that has ever existed. Believe it or not, Detroit also has some of the best, most highly rated drinking water in the country. It’s very high quality when it leaves the treatment plant and tastes great too.
Until recently, there have been few problems getting water to the people. But Governor Snyder’s Emergency Manager, Kevyn Orr, fixed that, right? Under Orr, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) began massive shut-offs of single homes and apartment buildings with overdue bills. Sounds like a normal course of action except for a few mitigating factors.
While Michigan’s unemployment rate has been nothing to brag about of late, Detroit’s has had double-digit unemployment for well over a decade. Officially, unemployment in the city is now 30 percent, higher than worst times of the Great Depression. Detroit also has the highest poverty rate of any large city in the nation. Detroit’s water rates have increased 119 percent in past decade. My family pays $75 per month for water in a house with three people who are hardly ever home.
You would think someone put in place to file the city’s bankruptcy might be aware of such realities before he started depriving thousands of parents, children and elders of such essentials as water. You might also think he’d investigate what actually happens when low-income folks scrape together funds attempting to get the service back on. If Snyder’s Emergency Manager had taken economic reality into account, or even acknowledged the effect of lots of leaky pipes, he would have come up with a more humane way to deal with the overdue bills or at very least not had folks waiting in block long lines only to find out they didn’t have the enough money or the right papers to pay. Renters couldn’t get their water turned on without proof of owning the building.
The truth is Detroit’s Water Department has been leveraged to the hilt with questionable bank “loans” and deals. But instead of addressing that injustice, Orr decided to try to get water from a stone, so to speak, and demand money that people clearly don’t have.
As you may know, local, national and international organizers and media coverage managed to provide some heat and light for Mr. Orr. Well over a thousand people took to the streets during Netroots Nation shouting, “water is a human right” in a protest spearheaded by the National Nurses Association who also declared the water shut-offs a health crisis. This was after the People’s Water Board of Detroit and Michigan Welfare Rights Organization (MWRO) got Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians to file a human rights violation with the United Nations. The Canadians also delivered more than 250 gallons of tap water to Detroit families in need via caravan through the Windsor/Detroit tunnel. That rally was attended by hundreds and also drew international attention.
These were just a few of the many events that caused Orr to halt to shut-offs and dump the fiasco in Mayor Mike Duggan’s lap. The Mayor has released a 10-point plan. It’s better than what Orr offered, which was nothing. But the Mayor has yet to fully acknowledge the realities addressed in the MWRO’s Water Affordability Program (WAP), which was approved by the City Council back in 2005, but never implemented. Like the declaration of water being a human right, the WAP is a paradigm shift. Both put the needs of people above those of the banks. Let’s see if Mayor Duggan can step up and do the same.