A Detroit judge ruled that there is no basic human right to water. Judge Steven Rhodes refused to extend a moratorium on water shutoffs another six months in the city of Detroit. If people cannot pay their water bills, they have no right to running water in their homes, he opined. Many see this as a heartless ruling and vow to continue the fight to make sure people have access to this vital resource.
Do Americans have a basic human right to water? U.S. citizens believe they live in the greatest country in the world with a high standard of living enjoyed by all residents. At least when compared to the majority of people around the globe, Americans are living well. One fact often cited to support this claim is that all Americans have access to clean, abundant water right in their homes, but what if they do not? What if water is actually a luxury reserved for the wealthy and many Americans fall below the income necessary to afford water? People living in American cities are not able to go to open sources of water to collect it for their daily needs. Some women in Africa spend three hours a day fetching enough water for basic drinking, cooking and cleaning. The only conditions that would be worse would be to have no water at all, and that is the situation facing thousands of Detroit residents.
Detroit has been in dire financial straights since 2008 and the downsizing of the automobile industry in the United States. Unemployment in Detroit is 16.4 percent, much higher than the national average. In July 2013 the city filed for bankruptcy. By December 2013, the Bankruptcy Court ruled that the city was eligible for chapter nine on $18.5 billion of debt. Since then, Michigan has passed a series of bills to avoid further bankruptcy proceedings.
The city of Detroit is quite familiar with the consequences of accumulating more debt than it is possible to pay. The state of the city’s finances makes the question of water more tricky. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is a not for profit organization. It is restricted by Michigan law from making a profit on providing water and sewage service. At the same time, it receives no help from any sort of tax base. The DWSD has 1,651 employees, 12 pump stations, six sewer overflow retention treatment basins, three screening and disinfection facilities, thousands of miles of pipes, and a waste-water treatment plant that processes 710 million gallons of flow per day. Delivering water and carrying away waste takes $363,771,200 million per year; all funded by the users of the system. The DWSD estimates that a baseline of 1,000 cubic feet of water per month costs residents approximately $100.
What happens if residents cannot pay for their water? Recently, the city of Detroit has been shutting off service. The DWSD says if it gets further behind in meeting expenses it will never become fiscally solvent and secure in delivering water to city residents. Between March and August it shut off water to nearly 24,000 homes. Many people managed to reinstate water service, but at least 7,000 homes still have no running water. As a month-long moratorium ends, the DWSD will go back to shutting off water to 400 homes per day. Does Detroit have the right to deprive residents of a resource essential for life?
Judge Steven W. Rhodes at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Michigan ruled that citizens do not have an implicit right to water and that no basic human right to water exists. Some say that this seems to be the antithesis to the ideals of America. The country was founded to “promote the general welfare” of the people. Water is a very basic need. Not only must people have clean water to drink to stay alive, they also need water to wash, to cook, to eliminate waste, to clean clothes and bedding, to maintain a sanitary environment, to ensure fire safety and more. The lack of water could make more Detroit homes uninhabitable. No one is sure how many children, elderly or disabled people are being affected by the water shutoffs. Judge Rhodes agreed that a family without water faces risk of irreparable harm, but found no legal basis to prevent water shutoffs.
So the water issue becomes very complex. People need water and have no way to access it save for the public city water. Yet the city cannot afford to provide free water to residents who cannot or do not pay. A solution must be found before the crisis worsens. Government aid funds other necessities such as food, heat, housing and medical care. Maybe water subsidies should be added. Detroit does have a program for cash assistance to avoid shutoff, but it is just a stop gap measure and does not help those who chronically cannot pay their bill.
The situation in Detroit could occur in cities across the United States as the middle class continues to slide towards poverty and the poor slide off the chart. Many feel that the question of whether water is a basic human right needs to be addressed. As most Americans believe the answer is yes according to some surveys, governments need to rethink the water delivery infrastructure to ensure that all American citizens will always have access.
The City of Detroit has approved a plan to partner with suburbs and expand their water service. By adding more paying homes the DWSD hopes to recoup losses and be more humanitarian with customers undergoing hardships. However, some residents believe that creating the Regional Water Authority is a step towards privatization of water in the U.S. The new authority will be more focused on revenue and balancing the bottom line and under less direct control of the government. Sue McCormick, DWSD director states, “We look forward to working together with our regional partners so that we remain the utility of choice in Southeastern Michigan.” What choice do Detroit residents have in water providers? They either buy from the DSWD and pay the rates charged or do without water. It is not a business model that favors the consumer. Only time will tell if this partnership saves the DWSD or further exacerbates the problem for Detroit’s poor.
Thousands of homes in Detroit remain without water as the legal battle proceeds. They were dealt a severe blow when the Detroit judge ruled that there is no basic human right to water, and will receive no immediate relief. Many commentators feel that Americans should look at Detroit and see a possible future. Unless all of society begins to rebound from the recession, more people might find themselves in a situation where water is a right only of the wealthy.
By: Rebecca Savastio