As Detroit activists and human rights groups continue to protest against widespread water shutoffs, the Council of Canadians mobilized on Thursday to deliver a convoy of water in a show of international support to beleaguered city residents.
The Windsor chapter of the council will bring hundreds of gallons of water into Detroit to help those faced with long-term service shutoffs.
"In a region that holds 20% of the world’s freshwater, the water cut-offs are a source of growing international outrage," said Maude Barlow, national chairperson for the Council of Canadians. "Water is a human right, and it is unacceptable in a country of plenty, surrounded by the Great Lakes, the largest source of fresh water in the world, that people should go without."
The council delivered their convoy to a rally Thursday afternoon at the St. Peter’s Episcopal Church of Detroit. Several organizers also sent a petition to City Hall, asking for water to be restored to elderly people, disabled people and families with children.
"The human suffering is that of a major disaster, one that grows every day," Barlow stated, adding that the council asks President Barack Obama to "intervene and to declare a state of emergency. It is appalling that this has been allowed to happen, even more so to go on this long."
The city, which has been fighting its way out of bankruptcy in part by cutting public services such as pensions and welfare, ceased its water supply three months ago to households that were behind on payments in order to collect about $118 million in outstanding bills. Council members recently agreed to a 15-day moratorium on the shutoffs to allow residents time to catch up on what they owe, but emphasized that it was temporary. The policy began to receive international attention as residents held rallies and mass protests and the United Nations declared the shutoffs a violation of human rights.
More than 14,000 households were disconnected between April and June, while the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) announced plans to increase the shutoffs to up to 3,000 households a month. But according to Catarina de Albuquerque, UN expert on the human right to water and sanitation, disconnections for delinquent bills are only "permissible" if residents are simply choosing not to pay, which is not the case for the majority of the city's low-income households.
"Disconnections due to non-payment are only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying," de Albuquerque said. "In other words, when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections."
Detroit's cost of living is too high for many of its low-income residents, particularly as they take the brunt of service cuts decided on by their bankruptcy manager, Kevyn Orr. "Our water rates rise continuously," Priscilla Dziubek, a spokesperson for the Detroit People’s Water Board, told Common Dreams. "More and more people are struggling with their water bills. We have a loss of democracy. [The city] should make decisions with the citizens of Detroit in mind."
Water bills in Detroit have gone up by 119 percent in the past 10 years. In June, the city council approved an 8.7 percent increase in rates. At the same time, unemployment rates reached a record high and the poverty rate hit 40 percent. Orr ordered the shutoffs for anyone who owes more than $150 on their bill, while the DWSD said that the procedure is standard and enforced every year.
But as the Michigan Citizen pointed out in June, there is a notable discrepancy in who gets their water services turned off and who doesn't: Low-income residents do while elite establishments — like the Palmer Park Golf Club, which owes $200,000; Ford Field, which owes $55,000; and the Joe Louis Arena, which owes $80,000 — don't.
"Why are they going after citizens?" Dziubek said. "They could collect from one of these large accounts and get a lot more money."
The Detroit People's Water Board and several other organizations, including Food & Water Watch, called on the city's managers to implement a water affordability plan that would ease the burden on low-income residents. In a report (PDF) submitted to the special rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, the Detroit People's Water Board stated that "it would be more just and efficient for the DWSD to spend its resources collecting unpaid bills from commercial and industrial users than depriving households of basic services."
Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, said in a press statement Monday that the DWSD should "fundamentally reconsider its use of draconian water shutoffs as a means of strong-arming residents who cannot afford to pay their water bills."
It was unclear Thursday morning whether the council would be able to cross the border, as the U.S. government has to give approval on allowing in any amount of water that exceeds what is necessary for "personal use."
Dziubek wasn't worried. "I can't see any reason why humanitarian water would be turned away," she said.