Following massive Friday protests that led to nine arrests, the city of Detroit announced on Monday it is suspending its sweeping water shut-offs for 15 days to launch a massive campaign to inform city residents of water assistance.
It’s difficult to get a full picture of the water crisis going on in Detroit. To date, the city has cut off water service to about 16,000 households, with another 324,000 overdue water and sewage accounts facing potential shut-off. That’s over 40 percent of the city. In response, the United Nations Human Rights Council recently condemned the city’s water shut-off campaign as a human rights violation and public health concern, as thousands of low income Detroit households and families are facing the absence of a basic necessity for every living creature on planet Earth.
The U.N. special reporter on extreme poverty and human rights, Leilana Farha, added that if it turned out the water shut-offs targeted African Americans it could be in violation of treaties the U.S. has ratified. It’s important to note that Detroit’s population is 83 percent African American.
It’s also worth pointing out that Michigan is the only state entirely within the Great Lakes water basin and surrounded by some of the largest fresh water lakes in the world. It’s not like water is scarce here.
But what the heck? The Detroit Water and Sewage Department is shutting off water for non-payment in a city that’s billions of dollars in debt. What do people expect, right? Once you reach the $150 delinquency amount, your water goes off.
Unfortunately, Detroit — long at the epicenter of industrial decline, offshoring and a crumbling auto industry — has experienced massive poverty, with more than 40 percent of the population at or below the poverty line. The people are broke. The city is broke. And while the city claims there are plenty of resources for people facing water shut-offs, they admit that they’re kind of short-staffed in the Notifying People of a Shut-Off department.
But surely these water delinquencies aren’t a new thing, considering the high poverty rate. In fact Joanne Watson, former Detroit city council member, said that the city passed a payment plan for low-income households — but never implemented it.
So if the water delinquencies aren’t a new thing, why is the water department cracking down now? Why NOW? Why did the city shell out 5 million bucks for a private contractor to shut off water NOW?
The city has been pushing to fast-track privatization of the water and sewer departments. So it certainly wouldn’t do to have thousands of unpaid water bills on the books when searching around for a private contractor to take the reigns.
Detroit is currently in bankruptcy proceedings, and its financial fate is in the hands of an emergency financial manager and a bankruptcy judge.
In March of 2013, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder appointed an emergency financial manager for the city of Detroit. What’s an emergency financial manager? They’re a last-ditch effort for cities hit hard by dwindling populations and the decline of a manufacturing tax base. They are appointed managers who trump the decisions of the city’s elected officials in order to bring the city out of debt, who often turn to privatizing many of the city’s services and overturning contracts with workers.
Whether the practice is successful or not is highly questionable. The emergency financial manager for the Muskegon Heights school system in Muskegon, Michigan privatized the entire school district, awarding a three-year contract to the for-profit firm Mosaica Education. The firm was still unable to pay the teachers, unable to maintain the school buildings and unable to meet their own stated goals. As a result, it was ousted after the first year.
Many of the services privatized by these emergency financial managers tend to be sub-standard and lead to greater problems with little financial gain. When the city of Detroit is called out by the United Nations for creating a public health hazard and human rights violation, it should be a pretty big clue that you’re not serving the people.
Image credit: Eric Justian