'Partial Victory' in Detroit Water Crisis as City Regains Power of Resource

(Photo Courtesy of Detroit Water Brigade)

'Partial Victory' in Detroit Water Crisis as City Regains Power of Resource

Organizers warn 'there are still unanswered questions' about whether water will be a public good for the city's residents.

Detroit's Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr handed over control of the city's water system to the mayor this week following protests and international outcry at the shut off of water to tens of thousands of households that had fallen behind on their bills. While many are celebrating the transfer of power as a partial victory, organizers warn that Detroiters are not in the clear.

"There are still all these unanswered questions," DeMeeko Williams, coordinator for the Detroit Water Brigade, told Common Dreams. "Now that water is in control of the city, will it be part of the public commons? Now that the mayor has control of the water department, what is his plan?"

Orr issued an order Monday that transferred control of the the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to newly elected Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who will be responsible for appointing people to the water board. The order cites the "best interests of the City" as the reason for the transfer.

In a statement on Tuesday, Duggan said he "welcomed" the move and plans to "have a new plan shortly." But he appeared to cast blame for the crisis on residents who have fallen behind on water payments, stating, "When some Detroit residents don't pay their bills, those bills have to be paid by other Detroiters." He added that "all bills that remain uncollected this year must be paid for by higher rates on all Detroiters next year."

With an unemployment rate near 40 percent, and ever-rising water expenses for consumers, nearly half of Detroit residents are behind on their water payments.

Shea Howell of the People's Water Board told Common Dreams that Duggan's comments scapegoat the poor and working-class people being denied their "human right to water" and do not acknowledge Detroit's long-term grassroots push for a Water Affordability Plan. "Duggan ignores the fact that many of those not paying their bills are corporate entities," Howell added.

Wallace Turbeville, writing for the Demos Policyshop blog, expressed concern that Duggan will pursue the privatization of DWSD--a road that many believe Orr was headed down, with the backing of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. Duggan's "prior claim to fame" was the "sale of the non-profit Detroit Medical Center to a for-profit hospital conglomerate out of Virginia," notes Turbeville.

"This is hot potato politics with people's lives," said Williams. "Water is a human right. It should be accessible and affordable and should stay in the public commons."

Under the control of Orr, DWSD announced in June its implementation of a plan to drastically escalate shut-offs of water to households behind on their water payments to at least 3,000 a month, with at least 7,000 people disconnected in June alone. The shut-offs prompted months of mass marches, direct action blockades, and grassroots emergency efforts to respond to what many charged amounted to a public health crisis. Condemnation has poured in from around the world, including UN officials, who slammed the denial of water as a "violation of human rights."

The public pressure prompted the city in July to declare a still-ongoing 15-day moratorium on water shut-offs. But Williams said "the city is still turning people's water off" despite the supposed reprieve, and "the water brigade is still in the streets delivering emergency aid." According to Williams, at least 25,000 people are currently without water.

Residents argue the injustices extend far beyond water. "Orr didn't relinquish his power over Detroit's bus system or land management," Tawana Petty of the People's Water Board declared in a recent statement. " He dumped DWSD on Duggan because thousands of people have embarrassed him and Governor Snyder by standing with the people of Detroit, protesting in the streets and rallying with Canadians who brought water for families in need."

"The only reason Kevyn Orr did anything is because of the pressure people put on him, so clearly the pressure is having an effect," said Howell. "But no one thinks the mayor is going to do anything serious unless there is a great deal more pressure."

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