Since 2014, more than one out of six households had their water shut off in Detroit, Michigan. Even though the city is located in one of world’s richest countries and close to a huge supply of freshwater, the Great Lakes, water has become a major issue for a large portion of the population.
Access to water does not only depend on having the resource nearby nor the adequate infrastructure to support water distribution. In large part, adequate access to water is compromised by political biases, inadequate governance of the resource, and socio-economic vulnerability. The case of Detroit illustrates how poverty, urban mismanagement, and economic difficulties led to a humanitarian crisis in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
A bankrupt city unable to provide water for all
Access to an affordable water system has been for many years an alarming issue in Detroit. If the inhabitants regularly suffered from shutoffs, high rates, and inaccess, Detroit’s major water crisis began in the spring of 2014 when the municipal utilities company – the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) – began shutting off water in the wake of the city’s bankruptcy. Under emergency management to straighten up the city’s finances, the DWSD targeted “delinquent accounts” in an effort to stop ignoring the unpaid water bills. The homes that were cut off were either three months late on their bill or a $150 overdue, or both.
Since 2014, the city of Detroit cut water to more than 83,000 homes, and 18,000 were announced to follow in 2017. At the height of the shutoff campaign, an average 3,000 home were shut off by week.
Shutoffs that harmed Detroit’s most vulnerable populations
The shutoffs mainly affected already struggling families in difficult economic situations. 40% of Detroit’s residents live below the federal poverty line, 60% of which are children. Since water rates in Detroit are not calculated according to income, many users struggle in paying all the more so as water bills in Detroit are twice the national average – about $75 per month for a family of four – and the water rate doubled in the past ten years.
Most shut offs were located in downtown Detroit, which concentrates the poorest households of the agglomeration as well as a majority of Afro-Americans. More than half of the persons affected but water cuts were children, elderly or people with sickness or disabilities that are more vulnerable healthwise. This created a severe issue of public health. A research conducted by the Henry Ford’s Global Health Initiative (GHI) in 2017 correlated an increase of water-associated illnesses in the blocks most affected by the shutoffs, even when controlling for vulnerability and socioeconomic status.
The right to water, a universal right not recognized in the United States
In 2014, the situation in Detroit became so alarming that it caused the United Nations (UN) to intervene by denouncing Detroit’s policy as a violation of the human right to water. As unusual it may sound that the UN is issuing warnings to a country such as the United States (US), the US do not officially recognize the right to water as stated by the UN:
“The human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses”, UN Committees on Economic, Social and Cultural Right – General Comment 15, para.2
The Human Right to Water and Sanitation was recognized by the United Nations General Assembly in 2010, and access to clean water and sanitation is a key point of the Sustainable Development Goals – the UN’s agenda for sustainable development. The US however abstained from the vote – as well as 40 other countries – to recognize access to water as a fundamental human right.
How did Detroit get to this point?
In the 1920s, Detroit was the biggest industrial city of the US thanks to the car industry and the Ford manufacturing plants. However, since the 1980s and the economic crisis, Detroit has lost much of its past power because of urban desindustrialisation, in particular because of the decline of the automobile industry. In parallel, suburbanisation made that the middle class left downtown Detroit, intensifying urban decline in the city centre where the poorer populations, unemployment and derelict infrastructures are concentrated. Gaining less revenue from taxes, city had to stop investing into new infrastructure.
Additionally, federal funding for community water has been declining steadily. Since 1977, when federal funding was at its peak, funding for water infrastructure dropped by 74% – from $76.27 per person to $13.68 per person in 2014. This roughly translated into higher rates for consumers to maintain the infrastructure. Even so, Detroit’s water system is fraught with complications. Derelict infrastructure and massive leaks totaling 300 million litres of leakages out of the 1.5 billion litres that the system carries per day. With the bankruptcy, the city agreed to lease their utilities to a new regional agency, the Great Lakes Water Authority that launched the shutoff campaign.
Designing pricing policies to ensure water for all
The shutoffs in Detroit sparked strong local activism to protest against the current system.
American cities use a uniform unit pricing scheme for water delivery; it’s a form of cost allocation that allows rate differences between categories (say, residential or commercial users), but not between different types of users — who might have vastly different incomes within those categories. Because water rates are felt disproportionately by low-income consumers, they are much more a burden to public districts that have less wealthy residents, such as downtown Detroit.
This water pricing structure was put in place with the 1972 Clean Water Act, but back in the 1970s when it passed there was significantly more federal support for local water districts.
In the wake of the shutoffs, activist groups such as the Detroit Water Brigade or the People’s Water Board have advocated for a reinstatement of water services and water affordability based on income. Protesters argue that only an income-based plan can be a successful policy to assure access to water in a city where poverty is structural. The city of Detroit and the Great Lakes Water Authority are currently working on a long-term affordability plan. In the meantime, though shutoffs are still the norm, the city has put a series of assistance programs to help people pay their bills and avoid having their water cut off. These measures do have the potential of becoming models for other cities across the US.
Governance as the key of ensuring access to water
Detroit illustrates an unusual paradox: though the resource is abundant and accessible, it does not automatically ensure universal access nor affordability. If Detroit’s pipe system and derelict infrastructure did account for part of the crises, social vulnerability and economic difficulties aggravated the crises for Detroit’s urban poor. The solutions are in creating more comprehensive water policies and reforming the system taking into account the sociological complexity of the urban area. Access to water is a basic human right that must be fairly governed for it is a major condition for decent quality of life.
Article written by Sofia MORGAVI