By Shea Howell
It has been a year since the beginning of the aggressive campaign to shut off water to more than 30,0000 households in the city of Detroit. This week, many of us remembered the life and spirit of Charity Hicks, whose intellect and heart still shape this struggle for water justice. Her simple act of trying to help her neighbors prepare for shut offs cascaded into a series of events that brought the cry for affordable, safe water into the core of Detroit’s consciousness.
Over the course of this year, we have all become aware of the global dimensions of this fight. Water, essential for life, is becoming increasingly scarce. A recent study by the United Nations says that within the next 15 years the demand for water will outstrip the supply by 40%. Already the majority of the world’s population, concentrated in cities, lives within a 30 mile radius of water sources that are stressed and running out.
We have learned that this global crisis has an American accent. As poverty and joblessness spread, and right wing ideologies strip away any concern for economic justice or public responsibilities for our common heritage, more and more people find themselves facing unsustainable water bills. Circle of Blue documents that the price of water in 30 major US cities has risen 41% since 2010. And there is no end in sight as infrastructure ages, aquifers dry up, and private corporations get their hands on municipal systems.
Maude Barlow, who has championed water rights globally, and was deeply moved by the life force of Charity Hicks, recently wrote in the Nation;
We need to change our relationship to water, and do it quickly. We must do everything in our power to heal and restore the planet’s watersheds and waterways.
In practice, this means we need a new ethic that puts water and its protection at the center of all of the laws and policies we enact. The world would be a very different place if we always asked how our water practices—everything from trading across borders to growing food and producing energy—affect our most valuable resource.
Water must be much more equitably shared, and governments must guarantee access by making it a public service provided on a not-for-profit basis. The human right to water must become a reality everywhere.
It is this global and national context that makes the Detroit City Council’s actions to finally acknowledge that the City needs a real water affordability plan so important.
In the course of this effort, Mayor Duggan is proving himself exceptionally limited. He rattles off all kinds of statistics about houses knocked down, street lights put up, and car insurance, but seems incapable of grasping the vast differences between the amount of money available for assistance and the dire need of the majority of people in the city. Even the figures of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department indicate that nearly half of the 300,861 residential accounts are past due. The average amount is $732. Trying to fill this gap with charity is foolish and has proven massively ineffective.
Now the Mayor is talking about a “blue ribbon committee.” This is just another dodge to move away from the real solution that we have known since the City Council first adopted a water affordability plan a decade ago.
Roger Colton, a leading economist and advisor for the Detroit Affordability plan, recently said, “Piecemeal assistance programs rarely met the needs….Instead, the only model that truly works is a citywide affordability plan, in which water bills are calibrated so as to never exceed a certain percentage of a ratepayer’s income.”
Until such a plan is adopted, we in Detroit join with people around the globe to follow Charity Hick’s last wish. We will “wage love” for water justice.