How water affordability and community security are interlinked in Detroit

By Najma Akhther

Although access to clean and safe water is recognized as a fundamental human right by the United Nations, this remains a far cry here in SE Michigan. Issues of accessibility, availability and affordability have become key concerns for academics and activists here. While the term “water security” involves different interdisciplinary constituents, a cornerstone is access to sufficient clean and running water on a day to day, month to month, and year to year basis.

When we talk about water security in Detroit, we can see how this plays out on the ground. The burning issue related to water security in Detroit is “water shutoffs.” During their oral history interviews with our Detroit Water Stories team, several community leaders, activists, and researchers who have worked over the years on water issues, water rights, water safety, and water security repeatedly highlight how the water shutoffs pose a key threat in terms of community security.

“When I think about water security, I think about water shutoffs, I think about the city ensuring that people are either current with their bills, or are on a payment plan or they are just cutting off their water.”

said Nick Schroeck, associate professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.

In the city of Detroit, water security is threatened based on overly high bills ($77.01 per month for an average Detroit household, as per the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department). Because of their inability to pay these high bills, several low and fixed income Detroit residents remain without running water in their homes. According to the DWSD, in 2019, water shutoffs spiked to 23,473, up 44 percent from 2018 when there were 16,295, reported in Bridge Magazine. While officials say that “shutoffs are effective” to enforce payment, and disconnections have helped to increased collections, there is a growing public health concern in connection to decreasing availability of water.

For instance, a correlation was found between water shutoffs and water-related diseases. The Henry Ford Global Health Initiative study revealed that patients who live on blocks that experienced water shutoffs were 1.55 times more likely to be diagnosed with a water-associated illness, according to a Detroit Free Press report. Without running water, people cannot take proper sanitation and wash their hands as often and are at higher risk of contagious diseases like the novel coronavirus. In a recent NBC News report, a 55 years old resident reported,

“I’m so stressed out. It’s just despair. I’m not able to keep my sanitation level up enough for this virus. I’m not able to keep clean.”

Many community organizers who deliver bottled water reported that residents are forced to rely on this donated water to drink, cook, and bathe. Several families use the same water from the kitchen to the bathroom. Moreover, because some homes have been disconnected from water over the last four to five years, this might affect the flow of water through pipes and water infrastructure, as well as its quality — as recent efforts by the city to reconnect water in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis have shown! Once disconnected, it is much harder to reconnect water and expect things to be just fine! No wonder then that experts have warned about the risk of water-borne diseases and public health emergencies in Detroit as a result of water shutoffs.

Truly meaningful water security in Detroit will only occur when all residents have access to running water day-to-day, month-to-month, and year-to-year basis without having any shutoff issues. We need an immediate solution and water affordability plan to achieve this fundamental human right, which is crucial for lives and public health at large.

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