The Detroit Water Shut Off: A Violation of Human Rights

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In efforts to gap its increasing debt, Detroit is shutting off water for up to 3,000 households a week. This travesty of justice is an effort to shake down half the town who have not been paying water bills. No one should have to pay for the luxury of basic living necessities. Activists are right to contact the UNit is a human right to be able to access clean water wherever it is available. The Detroit water shut off is a shame to not just the city, but its area, its state, and yes, its nation.

Some say that this act is delicate but necessary. But that’s garbage; you cannot get blood from a turnip. Detroit residents don’t have money because they don’t have jobs as there is no more investment – this latest development is proof of that. It’s a refusal to see the non-monetary usefulness of human beings, which is doubled by the racism factor.

We can talk about rights, but it’s clear the United States does not have a grasp of what that term means. This is the same country that considers it a fundamental human right to possess an AK-47. But clean air, clean water, affordable medicine and housing are only for those who can afford it, right? Everybody else can die out or move (to a place with less access to those resources, likely).

Now, nobody directly dies from starving in the streets in the US. Which isn’t to say that hunger isn’t a reality, but we as a society do recognize that actual emaciation is something to be avoided in the richest country in the world. So we have food banks, soup kitchens, WIC, canned good drives, and food stamps because, even though some among us don’t care about malnourishment and food scarcity, we can’t bare to see people dying in the streets from lack of basic food. 

But yet, water. Water, I remind my daughter, makes up the vast majority of our bodies. Water, the essential element outside of oxygen/carbon dioxide for all living matter on this planet. Water, they can live without, apparently.

I’m not too sure if the Water Reclamation Department should be carrying all the blame here, despite the fact that they are the ones physically shutting off the valves. They are, after all, just trying to do their jobs under overwhelming pressure from state government and creditors. Their city – with all of its departments – was recently declared bankrupt, after all, and all of their decisions are weighted by an Emergency Manager. So if we want to index the blame, it lies in the governments of Michigan and the US which have allowed this travesty to play out. What, after all, did they expect would happen to marginalized communities when they refuse to give them justice and aid? What do you do to citizens when their very existence is labelled financially disastrous?

Apparently, you shut off their water.

Michigan could have organized itself to have Detroit’s collar counties – wealthy from the existence of Motor City – be merged with the city for one super metro. In this way, expenses and services could be more evenly distributed across the region. These areas benefited tremendously from Detroit but extracted the city’s wealth and resources. It’s basic robbery, but white-washed. Since Detroit had ever-growing economic needs, this theft left the city with little-to-nothing financially. As a result, the city has to pay off its debts and the remaining residents – the poorest – are hit by it the hardest. There is something undeniably racist about the way the region is divided and continues to be policied.

There is a reason that Detroit has among the highest water bills in the nation, averaging $65 a month. If only half of the city can afford to pay, that half ends up paying significantly more – in fact, twice the national average. And they will continue to be hit by rising costs and reduced services until they decide it is no longer worth it to weather the storm and they also leave. And then what, financially, is left?

Notice the key word there: financial. Detroit, as long as it has people, still has worth – still has resources, assets, value in those people and what they offer. But we keep short-sighting them. Detroit is not just home to beautiful-but-abandoned architecture, but also beautiful-and-underestimated people. Since the city started shutting down several years ago, several citizens have risen up to not just make underground economies as in many of our shuttered cities, but also self-contained ecosystems with urban farms and makeshift resources out of recycled materials.

In fact, there are an estimated 1500 – 2000 gardens in the city – some small backyard plots and others big enough to support the block. One example of these independent farmers is a young man who calls himself Magnetic Sun. With his garden work, he feeds his family and seniors on his block. Youth and kids come down and help tend it and take fresh yields home. He also sells some of his produce at market. Another example is the collective Keep Growing Detroit which seeks to make Detroit self-sustainable through a network of urban farmers growing their own food. They also provide information about cooking lessons, gardening tips, etc.

Of course, this is but an aspect of life in a city whose state and nation have long since pilfered, then abandoned it. But at the very least, urban farmers still need water to function. Water is a human right and a basic necessity. If companies want to waste water making fountains and towns in the middle of the desert, or make a profit from bottling and selling it, charge themThe public needs public services – to do any less is to abandon the basic function of a government.

I’m not sure how anybody can not be furious at the Detroit water shut off. I don’t understand how a city that has abandoned its poorest and yet lives next to one of the largest fresh water reserves in the world will or could shut them off from the one essential element that we all need. What’s next? No air?

Last minute UPDATE: 

Apparently, experts in the Human Rights Office of the United Nations agree. Excerpt:

“Disconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights,” the experts said.

“Disconnections due to non-payment are only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying. In other words, when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections,” said Catarina de Albuquerque, the expert on the human right to water and sanitation.

While not a full-on censure, this is a clear direction and a signal to the US, Detroit, and Michigan that Detroit residents have legal and human rights here and they should be respected. US citizens should speak up to our own country on our own violations of human rights.


When he’s not riding both his city’s public transit system and evil mayor, Jasdye teaches at a community college and writes about the intersection of equality and faith - with an occasional focus on Chicago - at the Left Cheek blog and on the Left Cheek: the Blog Facebook page. Check out more from Jasdye in his archives as well!


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  • strayaway

    The suburbs get their water from Detroit and already have to pay exorbitant rates for water to subsidize water rates in Detroit. Suburbanites have no vote when it comes to what Detroit chooses to charge them.

    Detroit gets its water by piping it all the way from Lake Huron. A large percentage of Detroiters cannot afford their water bills which is the reason rates had to be raised so much to compensate. Raising the rates mens more people can’t afford to pay. Its a cycle.

    Residents in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula have incomes similar to those in Detroit and might wonder why they should have to pay for disfunction in Detroit. After all, Detroit is the most Democratic voting major city in the Country. However, you are right about people having a right to water which is already being subsidized by suburbs and may need to be further subsidized by Michigan.

    Want to help Detroiters? Buy a car built in Detroit and put people to work there instead of blaming others.

    • surfjac

      The biggest mistake Detroit Car makers made, was not making something as good as a Toyota or a Honda.
      I’d love to buy a car from “Detroit” and just might if I ever could afford to buy something new again. I haven’t had a “New” car since 1987 but it was a Dodge.

      • strayaway

        The consumer satisfaction level of Volt owners is higher than that of any Japanese car. If a Volt would meet your needs, you no longer have any excuse. They are made in the municipality of Hamtramck within Detroit city limits. That is what the Manhattan Indians said when they bought they paid a premium to buy the finest beads in America from some Europeans. The European beads were better than the locals were making. They lost Long Island and you lost Detroit in your quests for imported perfection. I was told that there were a couple of 16-17,000 mile 2013 used Volts for about $16,000 last month if you can’t afford the new ones some deals can be had.

      • DAV

        I did some looking – you can’t find a Volt in my area – suburban Detroit – for under $19,000. Add to that sales tax, and insurance of, conservatively, $4500/year, plus electricity and gas, and you have a fairly tidy sum of money you have to spend on that 2012 Volt. I know, I just bought a new (to me) vehicle (a 2013 with 47k miles) and I did a lot of shopping. If the Volt had been less expensive to buy and insure I would have seriously considered it.

      • strayaway

        I just talked to someone more knowledgeable about Volts than myself. He said low mileage 2013 Volts were going for about $21K. Depending on their use, a Volt used daily as a commuter car doesn’t fill up with gas very often. Those $50 full ups add up. If someone uses a car mostly for 200 mile trips, then Volts don’t make much sense.

      • surfjac

        I’m working a second job to keep a roof over my head and food in the refrigerator. Another vehicle is not in my stars at this time.

      • strayaway

        I have a Ford and Chevy averaging about 7 years old. I would consider a used Volt when my car eventually wears out. Driving only about 12,000 miles per year, it makes sense for me to first stretch the life out of what is already paid for.

      • surfjac

        My 2001 toyota pick up has 130K miles on it. I’ll get 250K on it if not more.

      • strayaway

        I once toured a mine. Pick-ups had to be cut in half to fit in the mine shaft. They were used up in the mine and buried. The mine used Toyota trucks because they were found to last longer. Good trucks; no doubt about it. My concerns however were for US workers being displaced and leading to situation like Detroit.

      • surfjac

        I think I started worrying about the future of Detroit in the ’70’s when the Japanese cars were ruling the roads in terms of mpg and gas consumption. The Toyota Tacoma is a pickup truck manufactured in the U.S. by the Japanese automobile manufacturer Toyota since 1995. Mine’s a 2001. I felt a little guilty buying the “Pre-Owned” truck in 2003 but my guilt is mitigated somewhat since the truck was built in the US.

      • strayaway

        I know what you’re saying.Technically, it was probably ‘assembled ‘ in the US from mostly foreign made parts.The difference is that bolting a foreign made engine to a foreign made transmission does provides some assembly jobs here at home but not nearly as many as if the parts were made out of Masabi range iron ore and the foundry was in Dearborn and the executives and designers were in Detroit and Flint and how many women were in management. All of this is, of course, kind of fuzzy with US big three cars increasing their foreign content while Asian cars increase their US content. The Mazda has a higher percentage of US content than a lot of big three cars. Big three actually is now big two since Fiat accumulated majority leadership in Chrysler.

    • Brian

      Mate, cars aren’t made in Detroit anymore. The industry is dead in America, and it’s all here in China.

      • strayaway

        Import tariffs would fix that in a hurry. Volts, at least are made within Detroit city limits (Hamtramck). There are a number of other vehicles still made in the Detroit area. More and more though, our politicians sold out the interests of US workers in favor of their paymasters.

  • Jim Bean

    Right. Food, water, housing, energy, healthcare, cloths, transportation, phone service, haircuts, toothpaste and toothbrushes. No one should have pay anything for any of these basic necessities. Or for anything else, for that matter.

    • Brian

      Wow. Progress. Congratulations, and I thought you’d never enlighten yourself.

      • Jim Bean

        I’m just as miffed as you are. The Pubs have that huge sack of money tree seeds and refuses to plant them. Inexcusable.

  • Worthlesspeople

    Maybe more people should pay their bills…….