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United States / Racism

Detroit’s Water Crisis

“If you’re wealthy enough in Detroit, you can have water. If you’re not wealthy enough, you can’t have water.” This is how Dr. Peter Hammer, the director of the Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University, characterizes the latest developments in Detroit’s financial crisis.

In what the United Nations has declared a violation of basic human rights, the city of Detroit has cut off water access to an estimated 130,000 people since the spring. Water advocacy experts estimate that this number could rise to 300,000 of the city’s poorest residents before the crisis is over. In one of the world’s wealthiest countries and in a city that is surrounded by the largest supply of fresh water on the planet, the fact that such a significant portion of the population does not have access to clean water is indicative of a problem that goes beyond the availability of resources.

Inequality in Water Distribution and Cost Burdens

Since Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in July of 2013, the privatization of the city’s water has become a tangible prospect. The Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) has been an attractive target for those who are looking to manage the city’s financial crisis—Detroit currently maintains a $5.7 billion water and sewage debt. Under emergency law, the city’s water has shifted from a public good to a private commodity that is only available to those who are able to pay for it.

This “pay your bills” rhetoric might not initially appear to be unreasonable. However, in a city in which 38 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, the unit-pricing scheme that is currently in place may not be the most realistic avenue toward reducing the city’s debt.

Detroit’s current water pricing plan involves a cost distinction between commercial and residential consumers. However, within those categories, the variations in cost allocation between high-income users and those of lower socio-economic status are nonexistent. Regardless of class, people need water to survive. Yet under the current system, water expenditures constitute a lesser proportion of wealthier consumers’ incomes than they do for their lower-income counterparts, thereby placing a more substantial burden on those who cannot afford to pay. A national report on public water spending commented on the (in)efficacy of Detroit’s pricing scheme, saying, “Current public water cost allocation schemes that rely on uniform user class pricing place a tremendous burden on the lower median income households in a community. The financial burden is both substantial, and sometimes, widespread in a community.”

These problems have been further exacerbated by the migration out of the city since the beginning of the economic downturn. In the last decade, Detroit’s population has declined by 25 percent. Interestingly, The New York Times has reported that the demographic shift is not a case of white flight, in which white homeowners migrate to the suburbs as the city becomes more racially and ethnically diverse. Rather, those who have left Detroit have been primarily black—although The Times concluded that they were moving into primarily “second-hand” suburbs that are likely to shift to mostly black communities in the next few years. Nonetheless, whatever the circumstances in the suburbs, water bills in Detroit have increased by 120 percent in the last decade as a result of this depopulation, shifting the burden of the city’s expenses to those who are financially unable to leave.

Since the water crisis has begun, poorer areas of Detroit have been disproportionately affected by the shut offs. Although the purported logic for the shut offs is to force able residents to pay their water bills, these shut offs are being imposed on Detroit’s most vulnerable citizens, likely those who need publicly funded water the most. Simultaneously, more than half of the city’s commercial assets are indebted to the municipal government but are not facing shut offs. The Red Wings Hockey Arena and Ford Football Stadium owe tens of thousands of dollars each, and Detroit’s commercial sector owes in total $30 million in water bills. Yet all of these businesses’ taps have continued to flow without interruption. Detroit’s water crisis is not merely a reflection of the inability of low-income residents to pay, but also of a poorly designed water policy’s disproportionate impact on those who cannot advocate for themselves.


Residential Segregation in Motor City

Detroit is one of the most racially and socio-economically segregated metropolitan areas in the United States, and this standing informs the context of its current water crisis. Eighty-three percent of its residents are black, and, as previously mentioned, thirty-eight percent are living in poverty. There is a correlation between racial segregation and class segregation, and in Detroit’s case, perhaps most indicative of this state of affairs is Eight Mile Road. It separates the heart of the city from the northern suburbs, and has historically served as a divide between the city’s black and economically disenfranchised residents from the predominantly wealthier and white population of the suburbs to the north. The water crisis has reflected this segregation—while neighborhoods south of Eight Mile Road have been targeted by water shut offs, areas north of the line have been relatively undisturbed.

Myths of urban development have served to exacerbate these realities of separate and unequal in Detroit. Practices of redlining and gentrification in the guise of urban development projects have contributed to the upward movement of the wealthy at the cost of the further disenfranchisement of those who were socioeconomically disadvantaged to begin with, and the racial implications of such pointed economic segregation are difficult to ignore.

In 1974, Detroit was the center of Miliken v. Bradley, in which the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that de facto segregation was permissible under the Constitution. The white population of the city lashed out at the influx of black migrants during the Great Migration both economically and through direct physical violence. Partly as a result of the economically discriminatory practice of redlining, the Detroit public school system was nearly two-thirds black by the early 1970s. The lawsuit filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) argued that although Detroit’s public schools did not officially mandate racial segregation, the city’s residential policies had enabled racially segregated educational facilities. However, the Court held that unless racist intent could be proven, racial segregation as a result of neutral policies was constitutional.

The Court’s decision has made possible a surge in racial segregation through purportedly neutral residentially segregationist policies. By 1987, white flight and redlining resulted in a 90% black population in Detroit’s public schools, as compared as to the majority white population in the schools of the surrounding suburbs. The movement to privatize the city’s water services is another stage in this process of the racial and economic segregation of Detroit’s residents. Whether intentional or not, the outcome is the same: while the wealthy bathe and hydrate as usual, the city’s lower-income residents are forced to live without life’s critical resource.

A “First World” Humanitarian Crisis      

Rights advocates around the world have condemned the misallocation of water in Detroit. In late October, representatives from the United Nations conducted an investigation into the situation. One senior advisor’s assessment: “This is the worst violation of the human right to water I have ever seen outside of the worst slums in the poorest countries in the failed states of the global South.”

Detroit residents have expressed similar sentiments. In an interview with Vice News, longtime Detroit resident Sonia Brown questions the mismanagement of the DWSD: “How dare you rob a city…that’s surrounded with nothing but water, knowing that this is what’s needed? Are you kidding me? I mean, have we truly become a society where we’ll go build wells…in third world countries, but we’ll say ‘to hell with our own?’”

In 2008, the United Nations explicitly recognized the human right to water. The United States has a history of responding to water unavailability abroad by throwing money at the problem. Whether or not this is a viable solution, this country has not afforded the same consideration to its own citizens. When the case of Detroit’s water shut-offs was brought before a federal bankruptcy judge, the court ruled that residents did not have a right to free water and, more importantly, that the city needed revenue more than its residents needed water.

The language of the ruling demonstrates a fundamental problem in the American attitude toward the Detroit water crisis: because it is a symptom of our economic system, it is not viewed as the human rights emergency that it is. Water is a human right, but the DWSD has redefined humanity as being limited to those who are wealthy, and disproportionately white.

Fortunately for residents of Detroit, Canadians from across the border are supplying those who have been affected by the shut offs with truckloads of bottled water. But until action is taken within our own borders, Detroit’s refusal to provide water for its residents will go down as yet another crisis of inequality in our nation’s history.