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Maude Barlow: International Human Rights Violations in Detroit

June 12, 2014

Measuring Detroit's destruction on a global scale.

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Image from Flickr via joeracer

By Maude Barlow
By arrangement with On The Commons

I recently visited Detroit, Michigan and am shocked and deeply disturbed at what I witnessed. I went as part of the Great Lakes Forever project where a number of communities and organizations around the basin are calling for citizens to come together to protect the Great Lakes as a Lived Commons, a Public Trust and a Protected Bioregion. We are also deeply worried about the threat of extreme energy projects such as diluted bitumen from the tar sands of Alberta and fracked oil and fracking wastewater from North Dakota being transported by pipeline and rail near the lakes and on barges on the lakes. Weare calling for a ban of these dangerous toxins on and around the Great Lakes.

But the people of Detroit face another sinister threat. Every day, thousands of them, in a city that is situated right on the Great Lakes water system, which contains one fifth of the world’s freshwater supply, are having their water ruthlessly cut off by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. Most of the residents are African American and two thirds of the cut offs involve families with children, which means that in some cases, child welfare authorities are removing children from their homes as because it is a requirement that there be working utilities in all homes housing children.

People are given no warning and no time to fill buckets, sinks and tubs. Sick people are left without running water and running toilets. People recovering from surgery cannot wash and change bandages. Children cannot bathe and parents cannot cook.

Detroit is a victim of decades of market driven neoliberal policy that put business and profit ahead of the public good.

Does this affect only a small number of victims? No. The water department has decreed that it will turn the water off to all 150,000 residences that are behind on their bills by the end of the summer although it has made no such threat to the many corporations and other institutions that are in arrears on their bills as well. How did it come to this?

Detroit is a victim of decades of market driven neoliberal policy that put business and profit ahead of the public good. Social programs have been slashed and their delivery privatized. Investment in essential infrastructure has been slashed. Every winter, hundreds of aging pipes spew water from leaks and the water has not been turned off in thousands of abandoned houses and boarded up businesses where frozen pipes also lose huge amounts of water.

With globalization and the hollowing out of the once mighty auto industry, wealth and businesses fled to the suburbs, draining the city of its tax base and the water department of its revenues. (There are one million fewer people living in Detroit than there were in the 1950s.)

The burden of paying for the water and sewer services landed squarely on those who stayed, mostly poor African Americans. Water rates rose 119% in a decade in a city with record high unemployment and a 40% poverty rate.

One cannot imagine that fact if the people losing their water were middle class white people. But the feeling is that Detroit is a lost cause and the people there deserve what they are getting.

Recently, the city of Detroit was declared bankrupt by the state of Michigan and a high priced bankruptcy lawyer was named Emergency Manager with a mandate to get the city back on its feet financially. Nothing is off the chopping block, not the city’s famous art collection or its water utilities, which are about to be privatized. As the feisty Charity Hicks, a leader of the resistance to the cuts and a founding member of the Detroit People’s Water Board, which includes welfare and human rights groups and environmentalists, points out, authorities see these unpaid bills as a “bad debt” and want to sweeten the pot for a private buyer. Hence the rush to implement a ruthless plan of cut offs for anyone more than two months behind in payments.

It is important to acknowledge the class and race dimension of this assault. There have been few stories on the cut offs in the mainstream US media. One cannot imagine that fact if the people losing their water were middle class white people. But the feeling is that Detroit is a lost cause and the people there deserve what they are getting.

What is happening in Detroit is a social crime and a violation of the human right to water and sanitation as recognized by the United Nations. The daily cut offs of water in Detroit, water needed for life and dignity, are an affront to the notion that we have advanced very far in our understanding of human rights or in its practice. We all stand guilty if we do not shout out against this terrible injustice on our continent.

Maude Barlow is chairperson of the Council of Canadians, board chair of Food and Water Watch and former water advisor to the president of the UN General Assembly. She is the co-author of the bestseller Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water and the report: Our Great Lakes Commons: A People’s Plan to Protect the Great Lakes Forever.

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