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Guess Which Wealthy Country Can't Guarantee Access to a Basic Human Need?

by Jed Oelbaum
August 29, 2014

Photo by Rebecca Cook/Reuters

Detroit's Water and Sewerage Department has once again begun shutting off water services to some of their neediest citizens. Despite poor economic conditions, Detroit residents actually pay more for water than individuals in many other cities, as prices have shot up to cover the department’s waning revenues in the wake of dwindling populations and failing businesses. After a month-long moratorium, the shutoffs resumed yesterday, depriving human beings in the richest country in the world of the most basic necessity of human life.

Residents, many of whom claim they weren’t aware they were behind, let alone facing shutoff, have been taken aback by the DWSD’s increased zeal for penalizing late payments; the agency has turned off water services to over 7,000 homes since April. Citizens report receiving enormous bills they say they did not incur, waiting in hours-long lines to even discuss their accounts with agency representatives, and confrontations with indifferent DWSD contractors called in to do the bureau’s dirty work. Garbage cans and any other available containers are being marshaled to gather rainwater in affected communities, as people begin to face the new reality of life without water.

While the city claims it has reached out to people through “water fairs” and offered structured payment plans, many believe that the push is part of an ongoing effort to privatize local utilities. By purging those who can’t pay their bills from the books, the city would be eliminating a large liability from the bottom line of a potential investor. The total dollar amount of unpaid bills is split about evenly between businesses and residences, but the shutoffs have mostly targeted homes, furthering speculation that business interests are being prioritized.     

Detroit filed for bankruptcy in July of last year, sending local officials scrambling to keep the municipality afloat—it’s a genuinely desperate situation that has pundits and politicians calling for increasingly desperate measures. In the U.S., unfortunately, situations like this lead to an inevitable conservative chorus advocating loudly for the sale of public assets and privatization of basic services. On the topic of selling off the Detroit Institute of Art’s publically-owned collection, Judge Steven W. Rhodes, who approved the city’s bankruptcy proceedings, warned that a “one-time infusion of cash by selling an asset,” would only slightly delay the city’s “inevitable financial failure.” Cities like Chicago have learned the hard way about the unintended (on the people’s part, anyway) consequences of privatization, with a scheme that gave control of the city’s parking meters to a consortium of business interests helmed by financial services company Morgan Stanley. Inspector General David Hoffman, in a report following an investigation, concluded that the city got a raw deal. In failing to properly calculate whether the contract was in their interest, they had agreed to an arrangement that had seriously lowered quality of life for city residents.

This is because the consortiums, sovereign wealth funds, and investment banks that make these deals are usually just smarter than local governments. They have no particular allegiance to their own countries, let alone qualms about failing municipalities full of poor people, and they’re certainly not interested in the “buy low, sell high, make a buck” model of economics that officials naïvely think they’re buying into. If they couldn’t leverage profit at the expense of the general population, they wouldn’t even be sniffing around.

There are assets that exist somewhere in between a commodity and a human right, and water is one of them. While the infrastructure to provide clean, safe drinking water costs money, and must be funded somehow, there are always higher priorities than immediate solvency. Governments, especially in countries as wealthy as the United States, have a responsibility to take care of their people, and maintaining a minimum quality of life is part of that responsibility. Putting the interests of carpetbagging parasites in front of those of their most vulnerable citizens, or trusting the intentions of corporations with zero interest in the public good, is a mistake that will have long-lasting negative implications for everyone involved.

Whether the shutoffs are directly linked to the shady privatization schemes or just a lucky coincidence for city officials’ fire sale mentality, Detroit’s underprivileged are victims of decades of terrible governance and half a century of economic decline, none of which can be laid at the feet of any one individual. Literally hundreds of thousands of residences in Detroit currently lack running water, a situation that is unacceptable, and one we should all feel ashamed of. The United Nations has already threatened to step in, warning that the shutoffs may violate minimum human rights standards, and activist groups like the Detroit Water Brigade and the People’s Water Board are doing what they can to get water to thirsty residents. And if you can afford it, The Detroit Water Project now allows you to directly pay the water bills of those who have had their service cut off.

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