The state of Michigan is surrounded by roughly 84% of all surface freshwater in the US, but all that water means nothing to the state’s poorest residents if they can’t afford to keep their taps flowing.

Thousands of people in Detroit — Michigan’s biggest city — may find that out the hard way.

Last month, the Detroit municipal water department announced that it will turn off the water for 17,461 Detroit households unless they can come up with the cash to pay their outstanding water bills, the Detroit Free Press reports.

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The city said it plans to resume its water shutdown policy, which has already cut off thousands of Detroiters from the municipal water supply over the past few years, despite condemnation by the United Nations.

The UN regards water as a basic human right.

“It is contrary to human rights to disconnect water from people who simply do not have the means to pay their bills,” said UN Special Rapporteur Catarina de Albuquerque in 2014. “I heard testimonies from poor, African American residents of Detroit who were forced to make impossible choices – to pay the water bill or to pay their rent.”

In 2017, more than 17,500 Detroit residents lost water access, the Detroit Free Press reported, and thousands more remain vulnerable to shutdowns. The vast majority are people of color.

Global Citizen campaigns on ensuring everyone has access to clean and consistent drinking water, no matter their income level. You can take action here.

Detroit’s water chief contends that allowing people to get free water service is not fair for the “90% of residential customers that are paying,” but local activists say the city and state have failed to address the deep poverty that prevents people from making their water payments, and the ways in which cutting off water access only deepens poverty.

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Meeko Williams, director of the nonprofit Hydrate Detroit, told the Detroit Free Press that the city should institute a sliding scale pricing system based on individual incomes to ensure that clean water does not become a luxury item.

"Affordability should be the Number 1 concern," Williams said. "What [has the city] done to engage them? A lot of my clients are in situations where they get stuck with a water bill and they can’t afford it. Right now, nothing will change and nothing will happen until you give the people affordable water."

We The People Detroit President Monica Lewis-Patrick said the city has yet to restore water service to households it cut off years ago.

“I have families who haven't been restored water for over three years so I know there are families out there that we do not know of,” Lewis-Patrick told the Detroit Free Press. “How bad does it have to get for this city and for this state to adopt a water sustainability plan?"

The city’s website includes a sample monthly water bill at a rate of $73.98, with a $4 penalty for paying a month late. The average monthly water bill in Detroit is about $65 per month, according to WTAJ-TV. The average overdue water bill in the city is about $660.

In recent years, Michigan has also caused a contaminated water catastrophe in Flint, home to more than 100,000 people, when it switched the city’s water source to the filthy Flint River. Dangerous lead leached into the drinking water supply and poisoned children citywide.

Even though tens of thousands of state residents lack consistent access to clean water, Michigan nevertheless granted Nestlé the right to suck 576,000 gallons a day from the state’s White Pines Spring well, National Public Radio reported. Nearly 81,000 people publicly opposed Nestlé’s proposal, which would enable the conglomerate to harvest 400 gallons of water per minute — enough water to hydrate more than 400 adult men for an entire day as recommended by the Mayo Clinic. Only 75 people offered public comment in support of the plan, NPR reported.

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In the face of such severe water disparities, local lawmakers and other leaders have championed clean water access and said the issue illustrates the crushing inequalities related to poverty and race.

In particular, Abdul El-Sayed, a physician and former director of Detroit’s Health Department who is running for the Democratic nomination for Michigan governor, has campaigned on ensuring that all state residents receive healthy drinking water.

“Water is so critical to our sense of ourselves,” el-Sayed told Global Citizen. “The tragic irony in Michigan is the fact that we are surrounded by fresh water and we are at the epicenter of water disasters, whether it’s the Flint water crisis, the Detroit water shut down crisis, or the other looming crises.”


Defeat Poverty

Detroit May Cut Off Water to 17,461 Households If They Don’t Pay Up

By David Brand