The brutal policy of shutting off access to drinking water has rightly drawn the world’s ire. Like the suspension of democratic rights via emergency management, mass water shutoffs are not a humane or viable response to Detroit’s crisis. United Nations experts have said this is a violation of the human right to water, and may violate some international treaties.
The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s mass water shutoff policies have created emotional and physical upheaval for families — including children, seniors and people with disabilities — forced out of their homes to live with neighbors and family. The human and social cost of this uncivil process — in the face of overwhelming unemployment and abject poverty — creates the potential for disease and medical injury. It puts everyone — the whole community — at risk.
The future of DWSD is being determined behind closed doors. Mediation by U.S. district judges and local political leaders will determine the utility’s future after the city’s bankruptcy.
We hope that these actors would consider that equitable funding for DWSD and its services are vital in ensuring economic and social justice, as well as sound environmental management. This is in keeping with the public trust doctrine and the human right to water. No matter the outcome of the mediation and pending privatization bids, these core values and objectives must guide the process and its eventual outcome.
DWSD withdraws water from the Detroit River and Lake Huron and transfers this water through its publicly owned system to its residents and users. The Detroit River and Lake Huron are part of the Great Lakes, connecting and tributary waters. Based on U.S. Supreme Court decisions and Michigan Supreme Court decisions, these waters are held by the state as a public trust and as a sovereign trustee for its citizens.
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Citizens are the legally recognized beneficiaries of this public trust. They are entitled to their individual and shared right to use and enjoy these public trust waters for drinking water, sustenance, health, boating, bathing, swimming and navigation. The subordination or interference with these protected rights and uses of citizens as beneficiaries constitutes a violation of the basic rights protected by the public trust.
The current leadership of DWSD — accountable to the governor and the emergency manager — has failed to display sound stewardship. Mass residential water shutoffs to thousands of Detroiters reinforce a commercial and corporate agenda.
DWSD has attempted to justify this by describing it as a commercial success. This only rubs salt in the wounds of those who are making major sacrifices to have connections restored.
To solve the water crisis, the follow actions need to happen:
- Immediate cessation of the shutoffs and restoration of household water and sewerage connections.
- Implement the city’s water affordability plan as originally proposed and passed in modified form by City Council in 2006. The original plan based payments on the ability to pay. This would have prevented this crisis in the first place. Instead, council adopted a fund to bail some people out, a Band-Aid solution that has not worked.
- Provide the public with full, timely and adequate information regarding the conversations taking place about regionalization and/or privatization of the DWSD.
- Recognition of the human right to water and the public trust in the water of Detroit.
Authorities with responsibility for the DWSD’s future — and for our communities’ public health, human rights and public trust rights — must step up to their responsibilities.