panel2Sandra Vermuyten (Public Services International), Maureen Taylor (Michigan Welfare Rights Organization), Mary Ellen Howard (Detroit Peoples’ Water Board), and Meera Karunananthan (Blue Planet Project, Council of Canadians)

MichUHCAN Board Member, Mary Ellen Howard, Shares Perspectives on Water at UN Panel.

I am from Michigan, two peninsulas surrounded by the Great Lakes which hold 21% of the world’s fresh surface water.  But in spite of this, many people in my state are without water – How can this be?

I want to tell a tale of two cities:  Flint and Detroit.  In the past decade, Michigan’s Governor Snyder declared both cities to be in a state of Financial Emergency.  He appointed Emergency Managers with unlimited powers to run the cities and to return them to solvency.  Both Flint and Detroit have been devastated by deindustrialization and disinvestment. Population and property values have plummeted.  Both cities have majority African American populations, with high unemployment and poverty rates.

You probably have heard about the poisoning of Flint’s water which received international media attention. For many years, Flint had purchased its water from Detroit, but Flint’s Emergency Manager decided Detroit was charging too much.  So he put the Flint water system back on line, switching its water source from Lake Huron to the notorious Flint River. Corrosion control chemicals to treat the water which would have cost $150/day were not used, and the pipes began to leach lead into Flint’s water.  The citizens complained that the water was brown and orange, filled with particles, frothy and foul-smelling.  They complained of health problems related to the water—hair falling out and red welts on their skin.  Plants and pets were dying.  A pediatrician saw child leadlevels were rising at an alarming rate and she blew the whistle.  There was also an outbreak of Legionella related to the water, and at least 12 people died.  Meanwhile the MDEQ and the Emergency Manager denied for 18 months that there was a problem with the water.

Community organizers refused to believe them, however, and did their own testing of the water.  Finally, the peopleprevailed and the water was again hooked up to Detroit.  A month ago, Governor Snyder told Flint that the water is now safe, and that the state will no longer provide them with free bottled water.  But the people have lost all trust in government and continueto use bottled water.  Needless to say, manufacturers of bottled water have profited mightily from Flint’s disaster.

Detroit, my home town, is another story.  In 2013, Governor Snyder appointed an Emergency Manager who was a bankruptcy lawyer. He soon filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history, with Detroit’s debt estimated at $20B. One of the city’s biggest assets was the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, serving 127 cities. To settle the bankruptcy, the EM considered sellingDWSD.  He ordered water bills over $150 and two months overdue to be paid immediately, andhe ordered water shut off to 150,000 homes.  Shutoffs were done, often without notice, and regardless of whether there were babies, children, elders, or disabled in the home.  Overdue corporateaccounts, however, were notmade to pay or shut off.  Bills more than six months overdue were transferred to the homeowner’s property tax bill, which resulted in thousands losing their homes.  Further, in those homes where children are present, parents may be judged unfit, and Protective Services will remove the children, placing them in foster care.

In contrast to the citizens of Flint who were seen as victims, the citizens of Detroit are portrayed as slackerswho just needed to pay their bills.  The problem is that 67% of Detroiters do not have income sufficient to meet their basic needs, and the water rates in Detroit are some of the highest in the nation.

To address the issue of water affordability, the Peoples Water Board, a grassroots advocacy group to which I belong, proposed that Detroit adopt a Water Affordability Plan.  Under this plan, if household income is below poverty level, your water bill would be no more than 3% of your income.  Other cities around the US have adopted WAPs, but Detroit’s Mayor Duggan refuses.

In the end, the DWSD was not sold, but tens of thousands of households had their water turned off, some for a couple of years.  Since then, every spring when the ground thaws, the DWSD announces how many households with overdue bills will have their water shut off.  This April, they announced that 17,000 homes would be shut off.  I don’t know how these families are surviving without water in one of the hottest summers in Detroit’s history.

Detroit’s water crisis literally came knocking at my door.  I live in a poor neighborhood on the east side of Detroit.  One day, one of our neighbors came to our door to tell us that his water had been shut off, and to ask if he could take water for his family of four from the tap at the side of our house.  He had recently lost his job and had not yet found another.  His wife is disabled with a serious heart condition and they have two children in high school.  For a year and a half he and the children carried water in buckets from our house to theirs.  Once a week they dropped their laundry off and we washed their clothes for them.  Eventually they were forced to abandon their home for one with water.

In 2014, the Detroit Peoples Water Board invited the UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to water and sanitation to visit Detroit to investigate human rights violations. Catarina de Albuquerque visited homes where the water had been shut off. At a town hall meeting, she listened to victims of the water shutoffs tell their stories.  At the end of her visit, she presented her findings to Detroit’s Mayor Duggan.  He was incensed that the UN thought they could come into hiscity and tell him what he ought to be doing!  He still refuses to consider a Water Affordability Plan for Detroit.

So what’s wrong with this picture?  Plenty! Here are my conclusions:

  • Water is essential for life. Every single person needs water every single day.  There is no alternative to water, and water cannot be produced.  That is why corporations want to control it.
  • Water is a commons which must be held in trust by the government for the people. It should never be privatized, monetized or commodified for corporate profit.  “Public-Private Partnerships” are code for privatization.
  • Groundwater must also be protected. Corporations like Nestle are buying up land to get at the groundwater which often is not as regulated as surface water.
  • Water is driving Climate Gentrification. Developers are less interested in coastal states where property values are declining, and are favoring inland states like Michigan for its abundant fresh water and less threat from the effects of global warming. The corporate land grab of abandoned, cheap property in Detroit is an example.
  • Water must be conserved. We cannot afford to take water for granted.  Every drop is precious.
  • Water must be affordable. Researchers at Michigan State University project that, by 2020, 35% of households in the USA will not be able to afford their water bills.  Affordable water ensures that even low income households can pay their bills, maintain their dignity, have water, and keep their homes and families intact.

Water is not recognized as a Human Right in the United States.   In fact, water injustice (like shutoffs) has become the norm and is deemed acceptable.  Corporate threats to the world’s water are growing.  What are we doing about it?  We must prevent water privatization and ensure water affordability.  And how will we do this?  My work in Detroit has taught me that self-sufficiency will not work. We will do this together or not at all. Grassroots groups like the Detroit Peoples Water Board are most effective in mobilizing people to bring light to the problem, and to demand solutions.

July 18, 2018 – United Nations – New York City

Mary Ellen Howard, RSM

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