In October of 2014, in the midst of Detroit’s bankruptcy, a team of researchers from the United Nations visited the city and charged its leaders with human rights violations on an “unprecedented scale.” Starting in 2013, as many as 27,000 low-income residents, the “most vulnerable and poorest,” were being denied access to a vital resource because of their unpaid water bills—often caught between paying for their water or other necessities like food, shelter and electricity.
Although the U.N. experts’ comments led to much debate in the media and legal courts, and Detroit finally emerged from bankruptcy in 2018, the water shutoffs have not ceased. With over 15,000-17,000 homes disconnected from water every year, since 2014, community organizers estimate more than 142,000 people have been impacted. Unable to pay delinquent bills often amounting in the thousands, several low-income residents have lost their homes due to tax foreclosures, as unpaid bills rolled off into already-high property taxes. These foreclosures further destabilize already precarious neighborhoods outside downtown Detroit, and disrupt preferred accounts of a “comeback” post-bankruptcy. Medical experts have also concluded that water shutoffs adversely affect not only the family denied water, but also significantly increase the risks of water-borne diseases to the entire block, creating a public health crisis.
Detroit’s mass water shutoffs continued till the Spring of 2020, when Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer — concerned that they exacerbated the spread of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, which disproportionately impacted Black and Brown communities — issued executive order EO2020-28 halting water shutoffs and restoring water to disconnected homes. In December 2020, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan announced that the City would cover outstanding payments through 2022 and permanently end shutoffs, but questions remain about whether these promises will be upheld, especially if authorities have not fundamentally changed their language and assumptions of the root problems related to water affordability.
It is important to recognize that Detroit’s historic water crises have not suddenly materialized, but ensue from longtime policy-making apathy, lack of public investment in urban infrastructure, institutional inertia, and pervasive racial and class-based conflicts.
Decades of urban-versus-suburban tension, as Detroit’s African-American population gradually grew to assume majority status, have made water access inherently political. This, in turn, has led to the marginalization in institutional discourse of those unable to pay their water bills as the “undeserving poor,” who would buy expensive smartphones rather than service their debts. As part of the city’s bankruptcy proceedings, and while under a state-appointed Emergency Manager, it was forced to cede majority decision-making authority on its water infrastructure to the newly created Great Lakes Water Authority, controlled by representatives of Michigan state, and Wayne, Macomb and Oakland counties. In effect, “the creation of the authority resulted in the privatization of water and sewage services in southeastern Michigan” (Sabourin 2016, 307), positioning water as a commodity subject to market forces and in need of purchase, rather than a public resource.
Moreover, despite the unprecedented scale of these water shutoffs in the United States, these woes are hardly unique to the Motor City, but are evident in most American postindustrial cities.
These cities, such as Dayton, Kansas City and St. Louis, face severe environmental infrastructure challenges along with socioeconomic ones. Moreover, several other cities and suburbs in wealthy Michigan countries are also reeling under the impact of unsustainably high water bills.
In the rest of this website, we invite you to explore credible news media coverage of the water crises, as well as community-based nonprofits and other resources that have stepped up to help impacted residents, along with oral histories of stakeholders from the frontlines of the water wars.