This weekend a delegation from the United Nations is scheduled to conduct a fact-finding mission in Detroit. They won’t focus on the vacant buildings, overgrown lots or shuttered factories of this once thriving city. Rather, the UN visitors will assess water – specifically, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s decision to press ahead and turn off the taps for those residents who don’t pay their bills.
“The fact that, in the richest country of all, people are without water, is a human rights violation,” says DeMeeko Williams, political director for the Detroit Water Brigade. It’s an organisation that focuses on direct assistance (delivering bottled water to those whose service has been shut off) and political advocacy (demanding changes that include tiered, affordable billing). “Some people are afraid of being labelled a third-world country, with the UN coming here,” says Williams, a Detroit native. “But Detroiters have been denied basic human rights. Denying people water is a basic UN violation. Water is a human right.”
Is it? The situation in Detroit, where more than 80,000 delinquent accountholders have been threatened with shut-offs, might be extreme, but it has spotlighted this essential question for cities worldwide. Is access to potable drinking water a human right? Or does providing water and sewerage simply fall under the category of basic municipal services delivered in exchange for fees and taxes, like rubbish collection and parks maintenance?
The UN visit was prompted by July protests in Detroit that resulted in multiple arrests, and the Motor City is not alone in kicking off over water: more than 50,000 protesters took to the streets in Dublin last week, carrying placards denouncing the “Ministry of Thirst” and decrying a plan to levy fees for water service. Ireland is currently the only country in the OECD that does not charge citizens for water usage [pdf], a distinction that will change in January 2015 with the implementation of meters and fees.
Elsewhere, privatisation of water service is causing strife in many cities. In Sao Paolo, Brazil, privatisation coupled with drought has interrupted water service to half the city’s residents, particular those living on the outskirts, according to protesters who have been demonstrating since August. “We are paying for water, but receive air,” read one poster carried in a rally this summer. The episodes echo the 2000 protests over privatisation in Cochahamba, Bolivia, in which police used tear gas against rioters. At least one person died in the violence. And in July of this year indigenous people in Ecuador protested against a new law that withdraws their right to administer their own water sources.
It is not only privatisation that concerns people: so does exporting water. In Marfa, Texas this summer, residents protested against the city’s decision to sell water to fracking companies. They mobilised in the streets and parked cars and trucks in front of fire hydrants as a symbol.
But should water be a communal good – and should it be free? In 2010, the UN passed a resolution that recognised the “right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights”. According to a UN report that year, lack of access to clean water kills more people worldwide than violence. More than 800 million people lack access to fresh water in developing countries, where unhygienic services contribute to diseases such as cholera and typhoid.
But the UN’s language is the kind intended to advocate for victims of civil war, severe famine and underdeveloped infrastructure – and not everyone thinks it should be applied to the developed world. Critics of the protesters in Dublin and Detroit have been quick to point out that some carried late-model mobile phones or subscribed to cable television. “Deadbeats and their advocates are marching as if to war to make Detroit safe for freeloaders,” declared the editorial board of the Washington Times. The Detroit Water Project, which allows donors to directly pay the bills of those at risk of losing water service, has been hailed by some for its innovation but also reviled by others as rife for abuse.
Mobile phones are a red herring. The fact is, most of the Detroit residents at risk of losing water service are poor; the city has the highest poverty rate in the US. This intersection of poverty and water access brings to mind the “food desert” (an area underserved by grocery stores). Food deserts have created a public health paradox: without healthy food, the poor are more likely to be obese, relying on corner shops stocked with junk food. The difference is that when it comes to water, there is no alternative – fast food and sugary cereal might be the food desert substitute to fresh vegetables and whole grains, but there is no substitute for water.
“Water is essential for life, and addressing the challenges associated with operating an effective, cost-efficient city water utility contributes to the wellbeing of everybody,” says Shirley Franklin, the former mayor of Atlanta who oversaw the costly overhaul of an outdated water and sewerage system. “Not everyone attends school. Not everyone eats in restaurants or drives on the road or goes to the airport. But every single person requires access to clean water every single day.”
It is difficult to reconcile this need with the cost of quenching it, Franklin notes. A 2012 USA Today survey of 100 cities showed that water rates had doubled in more than two dozen cities since 2000. They had increased threefold in San Francisco, Atlanta and San Diego. (Cities in Europe show similar trends, with prices varying wildly from an average of €0.40 per 1,000 litres in Milan to €3.28 in Copenhagen and €5.75 in Gent.)
The world is increasingly urbanising, too. Ensuring adequate water supply is no small challenge. In a 2013 survey published by the journal Water Policy, researchers found that 50% of cities with populations over 100,000 are located in “water-scarce” areas. However, even when proximity to water is not an issue – Detroit, after all, is on a river and graces the Great Lakes, while Dublin is notoriously damp – the report noted that “cities around the world are struggling to access additional water supplies to support their continued growth”.
One example is Adelaide, Australia, which pipes in 90% of its water from other regions. In an effort to reduce reliance on imports, the city is trying other methods, such as desalination. Though more sustainable in the long term, it is costly: water prices reportedly increased in the city more than 200% between 2002 and 2013.
Hence, privatisation, as a means of coping with these costs. The World Bank endorses it. But critics of privatisation claim that it only exacerbates the divide between rich and poor, leading to a situation where in some places only the wealthy will be able to afford clean water and avoid disease. In an open letter to the World Bank, water experts from more than a dozen countries condemned water privatisation, claiming that “water corporations are not in the business of funding long-term, sustainable infrastructure to deliver water to those in need”.
In Detroit, at least, the emphasis is on a practical, not ideological solution. This weekend the UN inspectors will meet with Detroiters, and hear stories of water woes from low-income residents, business owners and clergy. “Detroiters don’t want free water. They want an affordable payment plan and they want to stop the shutoffs,” says Danny McGlashing of the Detroit Water Brigade. Unless an affordability measure is implemented while the US economy is improving, Detroit “will end up like a third-world country”, he says, with a widening gap between wealthy and poor. “We’re trying to get these measures implemented fast, so the city doesn’t destruct faster than it has.”
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