A Canadian Is at the Forefront of Detroit’s Water Wars
As Detroit prepares for a sweltering summer, thousands of residents are having their water shut off by the city because they cannot afford it. We spoke to author and water rights expert Maude Barlow about why this is an international human rights issue.
Maude Barlow, image via YouTube.
Detroit is facing a mass water crisis that seems like something out of a post-apocalyptic moviescape. As the city prepares for a sweltering summer, thousands of residents are having their water shut off by the city because they cannot afford it. At a rate of 3,000 households per week since March, Detroit has made the executive decision to shut off the tap of some 150,000 of its residents for as little as being behind by two payments.
On the ground, groups like Detroit Water Brigade have popped up with emergency plans to stockpile donated drinkable water, implement affordable rainwater collection systems for potable and sanitary use, and strategies to create networks for distribution.
Detroit is a struggling city. It’s 80 percent Black and 40 percent of its residents live in poverty. Two-thirds of the houses that have had their water shut off have children—in some cases the families have had children removed and placed into foster care. The city is facing a human rights crisis that has echoes of Hurricane Katrina—a catastrophic breakdown of infrastructure with ugly race and class implications.
In Detroit too, both the state and federal government appear uninterested in assisting a city in crisis.
The water in Detroit is relatively expensive compared to other parts of the country. The price of water in Detroit is about twice the national average cost of water per month. Starved for revenue, the city’s taxpaying base—and its wealth—has fled the blighted downtown to settle in the suburbs. The remaining residents—those without the capacity to relocate—are left to bear the burden in cost. Breakdowns in infrastructure like burst and broken pipes in abandoned homes have exacerbated the issue—“we got water running just all over Detroit, in buildings—commercial, industrial, residential,” local activist Charity Hicks said in an interview.
But water is a public utility. If such a large swath of a city’s population cannot afford it at the present cost, the solution is not to turn off the tap.
Detroit’s Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr—an unelected official—says he has pushed to shut off the water in order to alleviate the city’s debts. Activists say the shutoffs are really part of a bid to privatize Detroit’s water, and that the city may have received pressure to get rid of “bad debt.” Meera Karunananthan of The Blue Planet Project, says Orr’s explanation doesn’t make sense and told VICE that “the city has cracked down on households without addressing unpaid bills by commercial and industrial users.”
The Detroit Free Press has reported that Congressman John Conyers has plans to introduce legislation that would stop the mass water shutoffs, which he considers inhumane. Meanwhile, Canada is sending mass water shipments—by the barrel—across the border both to combat the problem directly and to draw awareness to the crisis.
The People’s Water Board, a coalition of activists in Detroit that has sprung up to fight the shutoffs, just made a submission to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation. They were supported by Maude Barlow, National Chairperson of The Council of Canadians and a champion for the cause of international water rights. Barlow spoke with VICE by phone.
VICE: I was just recently in Detroit and I know you were too. They're shutting off the water to thousands of homes each week in the the city. They're calling them delinquent accounts because people can't pay their water bills. I also know that the water bills are exorbitantly high. Can you talk to me a little bit about the situation out there?
Maude Barlow: It's actually a huge violation of the human right to water and sanitation, and the basic human right to dignity. The people who've been left behind in Detroit are the poorest. Largely African-American—elderly people, single mothers, many, many people without jobs—and the exodus of money and jobs when the auto industry left and went to wealthy suburbs, the cost of essential services such as water and electricity was left with the burden of the people there. So the rates have gone dramatically up in a very short time, basically 130 percent in a decade and now they’ve raised the water rates again. And they can't pay.
So what we've got here are corporations owing about $30 million to the water department in Detroit but their water is not being turned off. The poorest people among the community are having their water turned off at a rate of 3,000 residences a week. It's a violation and a travesty of human rights, and I think it's a very disturbing story of what happens when you take the worst of these policies of cutting infrastructure, cutting social security, designing all of your economics programs and policies for the benefit of the wealthy and just placing the burden on the backs of the most vulnerable among us. I've never seen anything in North America like what I have witnessed in Detroit.
Your organization, The Blue Planet Project, was instrumental in launching a complaint or a submission to the UN Special Rapporteur. What was that process like? Why is this an international human rights issue?
We were very involved in getting the United Nations General Assembly to recognize the human right to water and sanitation which happened just short of four years ago in July 2010. And from that a whole process was started whereby every government, whether they supported it or not, had an obligation to come up with a plan to ensure the right to water and sanitation for their people. And one of the obligations is that you cannot remove a right that has been granted. So to even consider taking away the right to water is a double-whammy in terms of a violation of this agreement. What happened after the United Nations recognized the right to water and sanitation, was they set up this Special Rapporteur and she takes complaints and she judges them. When she thinks they're serious enough, she then goes to the government in question and launches a complaint on behalf of the United Nations.
We put together the information with the people in Detroit and we documented it very carefully and sent it in to Catarina de Albuquerque, the Special Rapporteur. And she's already come out with a statement expressing great concern, as has the Special Rapporteur on Food, as has the Special Rapporteur on Housing. Because these are all connected. She hasn't made her formal report yet but she's already expressed deep concern about what's happening in Detroit and we expect her to be launching a more formal complaint to the Obama administration in the near future.
Do you think the federal government should be intervening and bailing out Detroit?
I do. We need to look at Detroit; it's the face of the future if we don't stop privatizing and deregulating and cutting money and funding—federal and state and provincial funding—to infrastructure and social security. Detroit is going to be the first, but not the last, city that goes bankrupt and has no facility to protect or take care of its people. It's the canary in the coal mine and I think we really need to see it that way.
There's great wealth in the United States; there is great wealth in the communities surrounding Detroit. This is a decision that was, in my opinion, a political decision as opposed to an economic decision. And it needs to involve the highest level of government both in the state of Michigan but more importantly at the federal level. And yes, I think it's—I can't come up with a stronger term than this—a social crime. That the poorest people, the most vulnerable people, are having their water turned off while the bottled water companies are still getting the water for free. Just a hands-off on the activities of large corporations. I think it's time we had some very hard questions about the economic policies that have brought us to a place like this and the potential future for many communities if we don't change our policies.
You mentioned before you thought it was a political decision to shut off the water. How do you see this as political, and how do you see this as part of a wave of privatization? I know that Kevyn Orr, is not an elected official and he's been accused of colluding with this bid to privatize Detroit's water.
He's very much preparing to privatize Detroit's water, and in fact I think that's probably what this is about. I expect the companies in question said: “We're only going to bid if you get rid of this bad debt, we don't want to deal with this, we don't want to have to worry about customers who can't pay.” And I don't know how they think that's going to happen. You take over a water service, of course you're going to deal with people who are desperate—that's a nonstarter.
But it's a political decision in that the governor of Michigan decided to declare the city of Detroit bankrupt rather than come up with a plan that more heavily taxed the wealthy people in the communities around the city. Make them pay a more fair share of both the water rates and the other essential utilities.Turn to corporations that are making huge amounts of money—where the wealth is. While big companies get access to Great Lakes water free or at a low price, citizens are charged high rates. Water tariffs in Detroit at twice the national average. It's very extreme in the United States, you know that we're not going to where the wealth is. We're allowing this kind of privilege to continue while at at the same time the people who most desperately need help are falling out at the bottom. Detroit may be the worst example, it may be an extreme example, but I think it's the face of the future unless we dramatically change where we're going.