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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