Detroit Water Shut-Offs Are on Hold, But for How Long?

Most of us take it for granted that if we turn on the faucet, water is just going to come out. For at least 17,000 residents of Detroit, Mich., that isn’t the case, and hasn’t been so for quite some time, as the city chose to turn off their water in retaliation for unpaid water bills. The city’s decision has drawn a debate over whether or not access to clean water is a human right and if what the city is forcing on its residents is a humanitarian crisis.

It takes as little as a $150 unpaid bill to be eligible for having your water turned off in the city, despite the fact that those who find $150 simply too far out of reach to pay are the ones who are most likely to need the service. It’s for exactly that reason that even the United Nations is condemning the city for its actions against the poorest of its residents. “Disconnection 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,” the U.N. officials said in a news release, according to Al Jazeera. “Because of a high poverty rate and a high unemployment rate, relatively expensive water bills in Detroit are unaffordable for a significant portion of the population.”

The U.N. cites the health concerns that come from lack of water, stating that lack of bathing, toilet flushing and hand washing can lead to sickness and cause simple illnesses to spread. Even beyond the health aspect, by turning off the water the city dooms those in poverty to cycle even further into it, making it impossible to ever earn the money they would need to pay off debt. It leaves them with no ability to wash clothes for work or to cook at home, forces them to need to purchase water and other beverages and otherwise increase household expenses.

Even more dire are the reports that the city is removing children from homes without water, separating families against their will.

While residents are feeling the brunt of this new policy, losing water over a few hundred dollars of outstanding debt or even having liens put on their homes and other property, businesses, who owe a far greater portion of the missing fees, are getting off with no punishment. Golf courses, local sports teams and other large for profit businesses are said to owe tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars each to the city for their own unpaid water bills. Those businesses, of course, have seen no shut offs at all.

This obviously unbalanced enforcement over unpaid bills combined with the fact that a number of those who are delinquent believe that their charges haven’t been accurate at all has led to massive backlash, culminating in a 5,000 member march through Detroit where activists in town for a progressive conference joined with locals to demand that the water be turned back on. “Chanting, ‘Fight! Fight! Fight! Water is a human right!’ and ‘Whose water? Our water!’ about 5,000 Detroit residents and allies from across the countryŚincluding many who were in town for the annual Netroots Nation blogger conferenceŚmarched from the Cobo convention center to Hart Plaza near the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department,” reports Ruth Conniff from The Progressive. Also on the scene was actor Mark Ruffalo, who told the gathered marchers, “What’s happening in Detroit is a model for what’s happening in the nation. Instead of a nation for the 0.1 percent, it should be a nation for all humanity.”

Has the pressure on the city worked? It may have. Detroit has announced that it is putting a moratorium on turning off anymore households’ water for the next 15 days. The city says the pause is meant to give residents a chance to catch up on their bills, although the payment plans being offered may still be too high for many of the nearly half the city that is currently behind. The average bill, according to the Detroit News, is $540, and it would take a payment of about $175 to stop the city from turning the water off in those homes.

The city was closing off residential homes at a pace of 1,000 a week for the first two weeks of July, so any sort of slow down is good news. But if Detroit is really interested in regaining financial solvency, they will apply the same tactics to the businesses that are hundreds of thousands behind in their own bills as it does to the struggling families who had a choice to either skip the water bill for a few months, or skip the electricity, or the mortgage, or the groceries. Until it uses the same tactics on big business that it does on struggling home owners and renters, they’ve shown that this has little to do with their financial debt, and everything to do with punishing the poor for not putting the city ahead of feeding, clothing and caring for their own families.

Photo credit: Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim Ven1 years ago

thanks for the article.

M.N. J.
M.N. J3 years ago

In 2005 the Detroit City Council adopted a Water Affordability Plan that would provide relief for all families living at or below 175% of the federal poverty line and fix the excessive charges the city has passed on to families. But this plan was never implemented.

There are BIG businesses in Detroit which have as much as $9.5 million in unpaid water bills. So why is the city going after families first?

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Alan Lambert
Alan Lambert3 years ago

They should be on hold forever...

Mary B.
Mary B3 years ago

No Jane, not 'everyone' will stop paying their water bill if other do it. Look at the businesses who are way over due, yet most of the people and other businesses still pay theirs. Besides, clean water is indeed a human right so it SHOULD be free except to places that waste so much of it like golf courses, water parks, ski resorts that need to make snow and all other unnecessary recreational places.The government should directly fund the water and sewage treatments that keeps a city healthy.Common sense . Not a moral issue or a 'my hard earned tax dollors' issue.

Georgina Elizab McAlliste
.3 years ago

Thanks for the article

Jane R.
Jane R3 years ago

This is a hard one. I sympathize with the people who couldn't pay their water bill and had it shut off, yet if it isn't shut off for non-payment then "everyone" will stop paying their bill knowing it's not going to be shut off and they can get if for free, forever!

Maria Teresa Schollhorn

Thanks for the article.

Billie C.
Billie C3 years ago

if they truly can't pay there are programs go apply. there is nothing that says you have to have water pumped into your home. you can take a jug and go get it from a public water source. i do agree that everybody including business should pay up. you don't pay and you can then to bad so sad your water is cut off. why should others take care of your bills? nothing in life is free and it's time people started to learn that. bills come first then the neat toys and fancy clothes. no money after the bills then forget the other stuff.

.3 years ago

David F.,

I didn't change my username to "past member."

Someone else did!

Either there's a glitch in the system, or Care2 is trying to censor me!

Vasu M.
.3 years ago

Pamela W.,

I KNOW this thread isn't about veganism.

I'm merely saying:

Residents in Detroit have their water shut off. In California, we're being asked to conserve water, not to water our lawns as often, to take quicker showers, not to flush as often, restaurants only serve water upon request, etc.


Half the water consumed in the U.S. irrigates land growing feed and fodder for livestock. It takes 25 gallons of water to produce a pound of wheat, but 2,500 gallons to produce a pound of meat. If these costs weren't subsidized by the American taxpayers, the cheapest hamburger meat would be $35 per pound!

Livestock producers are California's biggest consumers of water. Every tax dollar the state doles out to livestock producers costs taxpayers over seven dollars in lost wages, higher living costs and reduced business income. Seventeen western states have enough water supplies to support economies and populations twice as large as the present.

Nearly 75% of the grain grown and 50% of the water consumed in the U.S. are used by the meat industry. (Audubon Society)

...if we address animals first, there won't be a water crisis!

In the '60s, young people were outraged upon learning that while many were dying in Biafra, we in the United States were wasting water on frivolous things like green grass for golf courses. Why isn't there any outrage over the meat industry?

And I've debunked "so much..." in email and snail mail, on AlterNet and Salon.c