Detroit says ‘Water is a Human Right!’

August 29, 2014

From the September-October 2014 issue of News & Letters

Detroit—“Water is a Human Right!” was the cry of over 1,000 who marched here on July 18. Protesters included retired city workers, small union contingents, Netroots Nation, convention bloggers and nurses from National Nurses United. Since March, Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Dept. (DWSD) had shut off water to 15,000 residents behind by up to $150 or behind 60 days on their bills.

For the city to exit bankruptcy, Detroit’s Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s “Plan of Adjustment” requires DWSD (which serves Detroit plus 127 surrounding communities) to become a major revenue source instead of a liability with a $93 million debt. Orr proposed regionalizing or privatizing water service, which would greatly limit Detroit’s elected city government’s control over the water system.

For decades before Orr escalated DWSD hostilities—including a new 8.7% rate increase only in Detroit to compensate for the city’s unpaid bills—citizens have been angered by DWSD’s arrogant and incompetent customer service. One payment center—where customers often wait for hours—has no public restroom!

After the UN condemned the water shut-offs in June and bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes demanded an explanation, Orr reversed course, declared a 15-day moratorium on water shut-offs and suddenly returned control of the department to Mayor Mike Duggan. Duggan announced that he would resume the shut-offs on Aug. 25, with a substantial support system for needy customers.

Neither the moratorium nor assistance funds would have happened without the ongoing protests, which focused international attention on the July 18 demonstration. Activists blocked the gates at Homrich, holder of a $6 million contract for water shut-offs. Although the contract covered business as well as residential customers, Homrich was equipped only for residential shut-offs. Since then DWSD says they are also shutting off businesses. Protests forced the reopening of a million dollar water assistance fund, which only became available on July 7. On July 24, a Canadian Water Convoy brought bottled water to a People’s Water Station at a downtown church.

The Canadian water was symbolic. People like me from all over the city are sharing our water with people who don’t have it—like the family with the broken pipe—as an additional protest. Most people are angry; many may not be visibly protesting but are doing so with methods like sharing water, chasing off the turn-off water crews, or supporting illegal turn-ons.  Without active serious protests we wouldn’t have gained even modest improvements.

Unfortunately much public discourse has focused on whether Detroit residents should pay their bills. The debate ignores the realities of poverty and the battles with customer service to correct billing errors. 

Nearly one-third of Detroit residences are blighted—homeowners in poverty and landlords who don’t pay taxes or make repairs. One family hasn’t had running water since February because of broken plumbing. Why should any customers pay for DWSD’s decades-long history of corruption and mismanagement?

Detroit activists continue to hold “Freedom Fridays” (patterned after North Carolina’s “Moral Mondays”) to keep up the pressure for water as a human right. For more information, visit

—Susan Van Gelder

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