Is Water a Right?


Respectfully submitted by Lawrence E. Rafferty (rafflaw)-Weekend Contributor

I have been watching the water crisis in Detroit for some time now and I have been amazed that it is not a bigger story.  If you haven’t heard, the new city Administrator of the City of Detroit that was appointed by the Governor and his Water Department have been turning off the water of needy citizens in Detroit when their past due bills are as little as $150.00. In a city with over 20% unemployment and countless vacant buildings, it seems like Detroit is slowly being destroyed. 

It may not have been a police crackdown, but what she witnessed was definitely a crackdown of a sort. Since last year, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has been turning off water at the homes of customers behind on their bills. The shut-off campaign comes at a time of crisis and hastened recovery for Detroit, which became the largest American city to ever file for bankruptcy last summer. The value of the bonds associated with the water department’s debt comes to $5.7 billion, which constitutes almost one-third of the amount estimated to have pushed Detroit into bankruptcy.

The campaign to crack down on overdue bills—which is aimed at customers who are more than two months behind on their bills or who owe more than $150—has been described by activists and scholars alike as an effort, pushed by the city’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, to get rid of the bad debt associated with the water department and prep the public entity for privatization.

In a city where the median household income is less than half the national average, 38 percent of residents live below the poverty line and 23 percent are unemployed, it comes as no surprise that at least 40 percent of customers are delinquent on their bills.

The water shut-offs have taken no prisoners. Since this year’s shut-offs started at the end of March, at least 15,000 Detroit households have had their water turned off. But the campaign, a tactic designed to pressure Detroiters into paying their water bills, began with little or no publicity last year, when 24,000 homes had their water shut off, says Darryl Latimer, the deputy director of the water department.” The Atlantic

Since last year, over 34,000 homes have had their water shut off by the City of Detroit and hardly anyone outside of Michigan has noticed. While I am sure that there are some real scofflaws in some of those 34,000 homes, many more are behind in their water payments because they are already strapped for financial resources.  When you see the number of unemployed and the statistic that 38 percent of Detroit residents live below the poverty line, it seems clear that a large percentage of the home shut off from an essential human need, do not have the ability to pay.

Should any city be allowed to cut off water to needy residents for any amount?  With the shenanigans that went on to get Detroit into bankruptcy, I guess I should not be surprised at the idea that an essential human need can be denied American citizens over such small amounts of money.  Is there any hope for the up to 100,000 citizens impacted by the water shut-off?

Lately some of the citizens of Detroit have been hitting the streets to demonstrate against the cutoffs and some have even resorted to illegally turning the water back on.  However, many are trying not to make waves because they fear repercussions if government agencies find out that their water service has been cut off.

Residents targeted by the shut-off campaign have been reluctant to speak up. Some have stayed quiet because they’ve resorted to illegally hiring plumbers, and others—who are without water and relying on neighbors and friends for drinking water and showers—are afraid child-protective services may intervene, as a lack of running water is grounds for social services to immediately take children out of parents’ care.

Even those without children remain reticent. Some feel tarred by a general notion of shame and culpability for not being able to meet such a bare necessity as water. Last week, a headline in one of the local newspapers, The Detroit News, described delinquent customers as “water scofflaws.”

This stigma is enhanced by the painting of blue lines in front of those houses that have just had their water turned off—lines painted by Homrich’s employees after a job is completed. Streets to the south of Roslyn Walker’s home showed blue line after blue line; among non-vacant houses, shut-off water was the norm.

Monica Lewis-Patrick, a community organizer who has been going door to door with fellow activists in order to raise awareness and distribute water, says she has come across old-age pensioners who—not knowing where to turn after their taps were closed off—have gone without running water for almost a year.” The Atlantic

One of the organizers of the most recent demonstration against the water cutoffs was the National Nurses United. This organization went on the record to decry these shut-offs.

“The union National Nurses United (NNU) was one of the national groups involved in organizing the rally. Nurses from the group told msnbc that the water shut-offs, which have thus far directly affected thousands of residents, present a direct threat to public health.

“Water is one of the most basic human needs that we all require,” said NNU official Bonnie Castillo. “And we know that it will result in a public health emergency. Not only for individual health, but community health, in terms of infectious diseases. Individuals can only live without water for a couple of days.” ‘ Crooks and Liars

Should the water be turned off for any resident, of any city or town in the United States because the resident does not have the financial resources to pay for water?   I was taught by the good Benedictine Sisters that it was mandatory to take care of the poor.  When American city governments start painting lines to delineate who is paying and who is not paying their water bills, have they gone too far?

How can we consider ourselves a great nation, when we treat all of the poor as scofflaws or lazy?  Does Kevyn Orr, the Emergency Manager of the City of Detroit have no shame?


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94 thoughts on “Is Water a Right?”

  1. The ‘talking boat’ was clever and amusing. Wonder if anyone watched 10 minutes of it! (a minute was plenty) Seems to be photoed by the driver, probably not saying if hand held, but looks that way. Two ‘eyes’ just there or added?

  2. Darren:

    I don’t have a problem with that wording, but it has sort of a Wiccan ring to it. One of the primary fundamentalist objections to environmental protection is the belief that it violates the order of creation ordained by God.

  3. RTC:

    I believe that the concept of the commons has been lost somewhere along the line. The idea that the natural resources of the earth belong to all of us is anathema to Randians and libertarian conquistadors.

    1. Mike,

      I wonder if instead we used “We belong to the Earth”? It might foster a better perspective on preserving that which provides us everything.

  4. samantha wrote: raff et alia, where would you all stand if you owned the water company? Unless you’ve never been an investor in any capacity, I might partially understand your arguments, not from a rational basis but giving you slack for your challenge. But really, what you all are condoning is nothing less than free passes for shoplifters at Walmart, while the rest of us are all foced to pay double. Don’t make it complicated!”

    Elaine M. wrote: “The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is a public utility. It’s a not-for-profit entity.”

    Samantha wrote: “Your point?”

    So far Elaine hasn’t responded to my question. I had asked her the question because I wanted to understand her rationale behind free water for people who haven’t paid for it. How else do you understand a person’s reasoning without having a conversation? In Washington Democrats blame the lack of compromise on Republicans who refuse to have the conversation. Here, Elaine and liberals refuse to have a conversation with a conservative. It’s not like they don’t have time, because they’ve just collectively written 37,515 words about how Nick et al. have accused them of passive-aggressive behavior and why they should have an apology for the insult. No thought is given to how all this must look to the public peering in.

    samantha said: “Elaine M, it is passive-aggressive when someone reads your comment, takes time out to reply, asks a question, and you do not bother to respond. Why so uncivil just because you do not share the same stripes? I mean, it’s not like the question is personal or anything not pertinent to the post.”

    Elaine M wrote: “Wow! The attacks are starting early today…passive aggressive, uncivil, collusion. As I told Paul yesterday–if you have a problem with me, file a complaint with Jonathan.”

    So she responds, but she just doesn’t want to answer the question.

    Well, I didn’t want to file a complaint. I just wanted to have the conversation, to understand the rationale for free water for people who don’t pay their bill. Fat chance, I said to myself, that liberals here want anything but controlling the conversation for themselves only. So I played out a conversation in my mind with a fictional character, Chloe. Here is how it went down:

    sammy wrote: “Your point?”

    Chloe: “My point is, the Detroit water department is not a Walmart.”

    sammy: “So, you’re saying it’s like St. Vincent de Paul, only it’s not a food bank but a water bank?”

    Chloe: “You could put it that way; they are both non-profit.”

    sammy: “Okay, so you are saying the function of government is to help the poor and disadvantaged? Isn’t Saint Vincent de Paul supported by voluntary donations, Detroit by mandated taxation?”

    Chloe: Yes, but the function of each is the same.”

    sammy: “But most of the Detroit residents are paying for their water. No one pays for anything at st. Vincent de Paul.”

    Chloe: “Those who can afford it, buy their groceries at Safeway, and those who can afford to pay their Detroit water bill, pay it.”

    sammy: “How do you make the distinction in Detroit between the real poor and the freeloaders?”

    Chloe: “If they can’t afford to pay for their water, they’re not freeloaders.”

    sammy: “But how does Detroit know that residents aren’t feigning poverty just to get free water?”

    Chloe: “How does Saint Vincent de Paul know its poor are really poor?”

    sammy: “But st. Vincent de Paul isn’t bankrupt.”

    Chloe: (speechless)

    sammy: In the same way that everyone who walks into Saint Vincent de Paul gets free food, why shouldn’t all Detroit residents get free water? If taxpayers are paying for the water for the poor, shouldn’t the ones paying for everyone at least get free water too? I mean, how is that different from st. Vincent de Paul charging me for a box of groceries, after I had just donated $1000 at Christmas time?

    Chloe: “But you wouldn’t go to st. Vincent de Paul for your groceries.”

    sammy: “But I might live in Detroit.”

    Chloe: “Where’s your compassion for the poor and disadvantaged?”

    sammy: “My compassion? My compassion is the $1.000 I gave to st. Vincent de Paul, my monthly pledge for poor children in Central America, and countless hours I have volunteered for an organization that helps people who find themselves in distress. Where is your compassion for taxpayers? Why do you have so much contempt for taxpayers? I wouldn’t expect you to have contempt for those who make donations to st. Vincent de Paul. Everytime we have a rainy season, the rabbit population explodes because the food supply explodes. It’s the same thing every time my taxes increase, the indigent population increases as well. People do not work unless they really have to. Domesticated animals have no problem trading the freedom of the wild for the comfort and security of the barn. Our property taxes have doubled in recent years, forcing many of my neighbors to abandon their property because they simply cannot pay the taxes along side all the other increases in the cost of living. So now those of us who are still paying our taxes, are also paying for the indigents who have been made indigent by tax increases. So I ask again, where’s your compassion for taxpayers? Can you not see how your “free for all” is not sustainable?”

    Chloe: (speechless)

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