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Emily Wurth and Tom Stephens say that the city is turning off residents’ water so that they are forced to pay their bills, thereby driving up the commercial value of the public water system in order to sell it to private investors

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ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore.

Thousands of Detroit residents have been losing their access to water. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department will not divulge the exact figures of homes losing access, but some estimates put it as high as 3,000 a week, and as many as 120,000 could lose water access as the city continues to shut off water to those with delinquent or outstanding bills, according to Maude Barlow, who sits on the board of Food & Water Watch.

Last week, a coalition of groups that includes the Detroit People’s Water Board, Blue Planet Project, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, and Food & Water Watch submitted a report to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, regarding, quote, water cutoffs in the city of Detroit, stating that the actions were a, quote, violation of the human right to water and sanitation and calling on the authorities to take immediate action to restore water services and stop further cutoffs.

With us to discuss this crisis in Detroit are our two guests.

Emily Wurth is the Food & Water Watch’s program director. She conducts research and promotes policies at the local, state, and federal level to help protect the nation’s water systems as public assets.

Also joining us is Tom Stephens. He is one of the coordinators of the Communications Working Group for Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management. He is an environmental justice and human rights activist and author whose articles have been featured on the websites Black Agenda Report and CounterPunch.

Thank you both for joining us.



WORONCZUK: So, Tom, you’re on the ground in Detroit right now. Talk about for how long residents have been losing access to water. And how are they coping with water loss?

STEPHENS: Well, this problem goes back a long way. In the ’90s, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, which has been something of a political football in the state and in the region for well over a century, actually, was cutting off a whole lot of people. And several activists, leading them the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, which you mentioned one of the complainants here, organized a proactive response and proposed with the help of a consultant a water affordability plan, which was adopted in some form and used for a while to subsidize some of the folks who were falling behind to try to prevent cutoffs. And that went on for some years.

But as the continuing predatory lending of Wall Street, the recession, the subprime mortgage scandal, the derivatives mortgage scandal, and then, ultimately, the 2008 crash began to affect Detroit, it affected the Water Affordability Program too, and those funds are no longer available.

Most recently, in the context of the bankruptcy begun by the emergency manager, we see an even more blatant level of what–I call it structural economic violence. I mean, what’s happening now is, under the auspices of the bankruptcy court, the regional leaders are trying to negotiate and mediate a new governance structure for the Water Department. Part of that is, okay, who’s going to assume the debt. So what this is is the imposition of a corporate for-profit model on this vital public health institution that provides drinking water for, like, 4 million people, and sewage services, and they’re saying, well, we need to get rid of some of these bad accounts. So they’re just going out and en masse, to the tune of 1,500 to 3,000 a week, cutting people off their water services. They say they’re going to apply this to everybody that’s more than $150 behind and two months behind. And that applies to over half of their accounts, over 150,000 residential accounts.

WORONCZUK: And, Emily, can you give us a summary of the report that was submitted to the UN and whether the UN is expected or even obligated to respond?

WURTH: Sure. So last week we submitted a report to, as you mentioned, the UN Special Rapporteur for the Human Right to Water, laying out the situation in Detroit and what we saw as a violation of the UN’s declaration for the human right to water and sanitation. And, you know, as Tom mentioned, the cutoff situation has really escalated, we know, in April and May. And this is from the department of water and sewer department’s reports that 7,500 people’s water was shut off in that time period. And as we mentioned, it’s escalating over time. And that was laid out in the report, along with some personal anecdotes from residents about having their water cut off in times of sickness, having water cut off in households where women were pregnant, where people had health issues and couldn’t clean wounds, and some, you know, various severe situations where water was shut off. And so that’s laid out in the report.

And just today, in fact, the special rapporteur of the UN, along with two other experts, the expert on access to housing and also on extreme poverty, responded, saying that disconnecting water from people who cannot pay is actually an affront to the human right to water. And so a press statement was released just today from these three experts saying that this is a violation of the human right to water. And that was put out to the media today. And so we hope this is going to lead to change and to the stoppage of these shutoffs by the Detroit water and sewer department.

WORONCZUK: And, Tom, let me read you this quotation from the report that was submitted to the UN. It said, quote, the case of water cutoffs in the city of Detroit speaks to the deep racial divides and intractable economic and social inequality in access to services within the United States. Can you speak to the role of race and class in this situation? And what other public services do residents–are they at risk of losing?

STEPHENS: Absolutely race and class as at the center of the whole thing. I mean, you’re talking about a city of about 700,000 people, 90 percent plus being working-class African-American/Latino. And, you know, this is basically the situation, right, is: does this department view itself as something like a for-profit entity that wants to maximize its value to be purchased by some multinational water conglomerate or to become a public-private partnership, so-called P3, regionally, or whatever they’re going to do with it and just maximize its economic value? Or is it going to provide service for these people? And if there’s a conflict between the two, push comes to shove, what are they going to do? We found out this summer what they’re going to do. You know, they’re coming and they’re saying, let’s just cut people off, just go out there. And they’re now, in response to this complaint, it’s just absolutely incredible. They’re saying, well, no, this has been great, because now people are coming in and paying. So, in other words, you know, yeah, maybe it’s a human rights violation, but it’s a commercially successful one.

Now, you know, they don’t even ask where does this money come from that these people get when they come in and pay their $150 two month old water bill. Are they foregoing rent? Well, yes, they are–heard a story about that today. In terms of these anecdotal responses, my favorite one–I shouldn’t say favorite, I mean, but one of the more telling ones that I heard today was where they said some guy was at his mom’s house, and they came to cut off the water, and he said, yeah, you come in here and shut off my mother’s water, and then I’m going to blow your head off (I don’t think he just said head; I think [he had something to say in?] before that). That’s the kind of situation they’re provoking.

It’s getting hot here. You know, they’re forcing people to choose between rent, medicine, food for their children, electricity for air conditioning, and water. This is total injustice. And the amazing thing is they don’t even seem to have a clue, even while the world’s media, frankly, has clued into this. You know, oh my God, the people of Detroit are filing a human rights complaint with the UN because they’re cutting off their water? And the water authorities seem to be completely without a clue that this is finally showing what the agenda of Governor Snyder’s emergency management and this corporate white supremacist takeover of Detroit that they’ve engineered, this is finally showing what it really means.

WORONCZUK: And what other public services are residents at risk of losing besides water?

STEPHENS: Well, I mean, that’s what emergency management is about is potentially everything, if you define it as public. I mean, they’re on a wholesale privatization kick. They’ve already privatized garbage collection. You know, basically, you know, our elected government has right now been usurped by the giant law firm Jones Day and their partner Kevin Orr, who was appointed emergency manager by the governor. The emergency management statute makes him the one-man embodiment of local government. So as far as public services, we’re risking them all.

WORONCZUK: And, Emily, is this the first such report made to the UN regarding water access in the United States? And are there other cities where the residents are also at risk of losing access to public water services?

WURTH: Well, the special rapporteur for the UN actually toured on a mission to the United States and spoke to communities across the country where there were various risks to their human right to water. And so there was a report that was filed following her trip. And so this has been the first one that I’m aware of since her trip that Food & Water Watch has been involved in. And so this was a followup to this mission/trip, that we were involved in working with her during that time.

You know, the shutoffs here we see at Food & Water Watch are very linked to this effort now by the emergency financial manager. He’s actually put out bids for companies to enter into some kind of public-private partnership arrangement, we believe, to manage and operate the Detroit water and sewer, and we’re expecting any day now to hear if he’s selected one of these companies.

One thing that we should note is that by shutting off the water system and forcing residents to pay, it’s making it more desirable for a private operator to come in now that these delinquent accounts are being addressed. And so what we see now is the actions of the Detroit water and sewer department as feeding into this potential privatization, and because of the bankruptcy issue, information that otherwise would be disclosed to the public, like who is bidding on the system and what is the arrangement of this contract, is not being made available to the public or even, from my understanding, the city council members. And so that’s a real transparency issue that we’re facing here.

So this is a very severe case, and we haven’t seen something like this before. What we’ve seen is private operators taking over smaller [incompr.] rural communities, aggressively increasing rates, fixed-income, many times elderly residents simply not being able to afford the increased rates, and water being shut off when it’s privately operated. And so, you know, this is something we’ve seen before, but not at this scale that I know of. And we’re very concerned that this is a major human rights issue in Detroit right now. And the shutoffs really need to stop. And the public needs to be made aware of what’s happening and what this emergency financial manager is planning to do with what is a real asset to this city and should be something that’s maintained for public control.

WORONCZUK: And, Tom, what response do you expect the UN to take in regards to the report? And what are activists and residents doing right now to try and regain access to water services?

STEPHENS: Well, that was such a great summary by Emily that I’m still pondering it. But I think from the UN the official international recognition of the violation of human rights is the first step. This, the filing of the complaint, frankly, has brought public media attention to this situation like nothing else has all year. You know, we’ve had this beautiful city park in the middle of the Detroit River turned over to the state and turned into a raceway for the Grand Prix. You know, we’ve had debates over, you know, whether our pensioners are going to get their pensions. We’ve had debates over police fire protection, public safety, and, you know, the whole budget and the whole nature of governance. It’s only finally with these mass water shutoffs that people see what’s really going on here.

So I can’t say what–everything everybody’s going to do. We’re in the middle of a water week right now, and plans are ongoing. But there’s going to be a whole lot of activity around this, and there’s going to be a whole lot of discussion around this.

And the amazing thing right now is that one of the things that’s feeding it is that the authorities just seem to be so clueless as far as just how horrible this is, that you’re going out and turning off thousands of people’s water a week without even so much as a say so. I mean, some of these things are getting shut off, like, two days before the deadline–you’ve still got two days to pay your bill, supposedly. But they’re out there shutting off your water already. And [crosstalk] turn it on again, they demand the deed, they demand birth certificates, there’s exorbitant fees–they’re putting every kind of barrier in the way. It’s just like Emily said. The point is to clean up their books to make this asset commercially attractive to the new buyer or ownership or governance structure that they’re in the process of setting up. And they don’t care about the people.


WURTH: And if I could just mention–representative John Conyers issued a statement on this today, calling it inhumane and speaking out against what he called draconian cutoffs. And so I think, you know, that was really important, to see congressional action on this. And I think that the reports brought the attention of the federal government to this as well. And so, you know, we’re hoping that that’s going to lead to further action to address this crisis situation.

WORONCZUK: Okay. Emily Wurth and Tom Stephens, thank you both for joining us.

STEPHENS: Thank you.

WURTH: Thank you.

WORONCZUK: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Tom Stephens is a life long resident of metro Detroit, and a people's lawyer in the city for almost 28 years. He is one of the coordinators of the communications working group for Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management (D-REM). His activism has included environmental justice, peace, civil and human rights, and the US Social Forum in Detroit in June 2010. Most recently he has been researching and writing on the subjects of emergency management, bankruptcy, restructuring and the potential for sustainable community in Detroit. His writings on these subjects are available at Black Agenda Report, Counterpunch and the D-REM web site:

Emily Wurth is Food & Water Watch's Water Program Director. Emily conducts research and promotes policies at the local, state and federal level to help protect the nation's water systems as public assets, and to safeguard the country's water resources. Emily has a B.A. in International Studies and a Master of Public Health degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.