The inequality of water in Detroit, Michigan

Maud writes*

In 2014 UN experts declared that the water crisis in Detroit, Michigan violated human rights of citizens as one expert noted that the “[d]isconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights.” Since the bankruptcy of the City of Detroit in 2013 around 100,000 houses have been shut-off from their water supply. Households were shut off if residents had bills two months overdue or were more than $150 in debt.

The municipal bankruptcy in 2013 led to ‘state-directed emergency management’ which translated in the attempt to collect debt from the poorest residents while ignoring to collect larger debts from commercial companies (Ponder & Omstedt, 2019). Additionally, a “special purpose government” was started to manage the water supply and aging infrastructure. According to a paper on the water crisis, the Detroit Water and Sewerage department was responsible for the water service in Detroit and surrounding areas before 2014 and still remains the owner of the infrastructure, however the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) leases, operates and decides on the water system for forty years. The establishment of the GLWA led to the privatization of the water service in Detroit. According to the same paper, this led to the isolation of one single problem, in this case the water supply, while ignoring the connectedness to other issues the community faces, such as poverty and racial injustice. Additionally, many members of the Authority were appointed by counties and the governor of Michigan, moving away from the interests of the city’s citizens. Many of the appointees that run the city of Detroit are state appointees, meaning they will be less concerned and connected with the issues in Detroit as they may have different concerns and interests. According to another report this also reduces the influence of Detroit’s citizens on long-term decisions that could improve the future of the system.

The underlying causes of the water crisis in Detroit arose due to the continuous population and economic decline (Gaber et al). As of 2016, Detroit has the highest rate of poverty in the USA out of any major city, with around 35.7% of its residents living in poverty. Accompanied by an increasing price of water service, this combination led to the water crisis Detroit was and is currently facing. The increasing water price can be attributed to ageing infrastructure (some of it 100 years old), which frequently fails and is expensive to repair. According to Sabourin (2016), the population decline also contributes to the high prices, as the cost of maintaining infrastructure built for 1 million+ citizens is now shared among 680,000 residents.

To address the crisis, Sabourin suggests involving citizens in decision-making and addressing inequalities. One solution is to elect “water-service” representatives to address issues and the sources of problems.

Bottom Line: The conditions that led to the water crisis in Detroit can be attributed to poor water management, poverty, high water prices, and the lack of representation of the people of Detroit in the decision-making process.


* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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