By Shea Howell
June 25, 2016
July brings water rate increases to Detroit and most of the region. Even without this increase many people are struggling to make ends meet. Shut offs continue. Children have been protesting the Mayor, and churches, long stable sources of housing for people with limited means, are all facing shut offs.
Detroiters are not alone in facing these increases. Across the country water rates have been going up at almost twice the rate of inflation for nearly two decades. Over the last five years water and sewer services have risen 41% nationally. As municipalities face aging infrastructure, shifting climates, and industrial wastes, and agricultural runoff, water is becoming more and more expensive. Fewer and fewer people are able to pay for it.
How we care for water and the right of people to it is a central question about the kind of people we are and wish to become. Today in Detroit, as around the globe, fundamental differences are emerging. For some, like the Mayor of Detroit and Michigan Governor Snyder, water is a commodity to be bought and sold. If you can’t pay for it, you don’t get it.
Mayor Duggan’s refusal to acknowledge water as a human right reveals his failure as a Mayor. Every day that he continues aggressive water shut offs and refuses a true water affordability plan Duggan drives people out of their homes and out of the city. While he bends the law and gives tax breaks for wealthy corporations, he continues a policy that everyone knows is broken.
Long before the poisoning of Flint or the massive water shut offs in Detroit, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation recommended that the United States “adopt a mandatory federal standard on affordability for water and sanitation.” The UN experts wanted municipalities to provide clean, safe water at about 3% of a person’s annual income. This 2011 recommendation was never taken seriously in the US Congress.
Now we are in a national crisis as water is being turned into a commodity. Private corporations are looking to it as a new profit center. More than a decade ago the Detroit City Council passed a plan like that recommended by the UN. Mayor Duggan has refused to implement it. He has instead chosen a policy that pits people against each other.
Selling water to those who can afford it and shutting off those who can’t is unjust. It is a policy that hurts those with limited access to jobs, income or financial support. It strikes at the well being of the African American community especially. A recent report by the Unitarian Universalists noted, “Today, one in every two African-American Michiganers live in cities that violate their human rights to water and sanitation.”
Of course, Michigan is not alone in pursuing policies that target African Americans as less worthy than their European descended counterparts. For example in Lowndes County, Ala., a majority African American county, there is no functioning sewer system.
Neither the governor nor the Mayor are able to do the kind of creative thinking that is required to protect water and people. Last week, in a controversial move, Governor Snyder voted to approve the city of Waukesha Wisconsin access to Lake Michigan. It will take out over 8 million gallons of water a day, and return treated waste water back to the system. Governor Snyder said, “Right now, there’s essentially a diversion of water that has human safety issues and environmental concerns with it, and that’s not a good thing,” The proposal is “a better answer than what we have today.”
Detroit and Michigan deserve “better answers.” In reality, answers have been coming from the community for months, years and decades. Duggan and Snyder are not even asking the right questions.