Affordable access to water service has been a large-scale problem in Detroit for much longer than most people think. Since 2004, tens of thousands of Detroit community members have faced water service shutoffs. In 2009, the People’s Water Board Coalition formed to protect Michigan water from high rates, privatization and inaccess.
In the spring of 2014, after the state forced the city of Detroit under emergency management, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) began an aggressive plan to shut-off water to 1500-3000 homes per week. This ramped up shutoff program occurred at the same time that the Governor’s emergency manager was soliciting bids to privatize the water system.
Despite public declaration of a state of emergency and even United Nations (UN) intervention, the massive violation of the human right to safe and drinkable water persists to this day. Valerie Blakely, a long-time Detroit resident and a Food & Water Watch intern, reflects on her experiences living through and with the shutoffs.
After facing a polar vortex storm during the winter between 2013 and 2014, Valerie and many of her neighbors faced skyrocketing electricity bills in an effort to keep their homes warm. As a result, they started to struggle to pay their other bills, particularly their water bills. Eventually, mass water shutoffs began in response. The water shutoffs were so extreme that, at times, Valerie’s friends and family had to decide between eating or paying their water bills.
In total, almost 3,000 homes lost water each week in 2014 until, ultimately, over 33,000 homes lost access to water service.
Valerie recounted July of 2014:
"My experience started early in the morning—I heard something outside of my house, looked outside, and it was a Homrich truck, [the company hired to shut off water]. I grabbed my phone and camera; I rushed to my water access point outside my house, stood over it, and said 'You can’t shut it off today'. The guy was like okay; two workers got in a truck, put the water key back in his car and proceeded to go across the street to my neighbor. Everybody in a three-block radius got their water shut off at one time, except me because I stopped him. It was horrific to see.”
Within an hour, Valerie and her neighbors set up a water station. They reached out to the entire neighborhood and knocked on every door. People woke up shocked and distressed when they realized that their water was shut off.
Valerie said, “It's one thing to have your water shut off, it’s a whole other thing to have an entire neighborhood shut off -- that's like saying you don't matter.”
When water is shut off, the simplest tasks become difficult: drinking, showering, cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, heating homes, operating life-saving medical equipment and caring for sick loved ones. The toilet cannot even flush without water. People of all ages are affected but it is even more difficult for the elderly to cope. Valerie’s 84 year-old neighbor nearly died from inability to access water for eleven days. She spent July 7-17, eleven days, speaking to the DWSD negotiating how to get her water service restored.
Fed up with mistreatment and inaction, Valerie and her neighbors decided to get more organized. They set up formal protests, community dinners, meetings and rallies. Hundreds of community members and neighbors came and discussed solutions. They even arranged a “community response team” that was on-call every hour of every day to help homes in need of water.
Valerie said, “Overall, I think the plan was to displace us. If people don’t have water in their homes, they have to leave. All of those homes that people had to leave are now being sold to people for pennies on the dollar. This was intentional mass displacement.”
Valerie and the People's Water Board Coalition had their first victory by the end of July 2014: a 15-day moratorium on water shutoffs for the summer. The moratorium was extended for almost a month, from July 21 through August 24. However, by the following September, Valerie's entire neighborhood was shut off from water services again.
Unfortunately, even the UN intervention was not enough to put a stop to the Detroit water shutoffs. The years of hard work that Valerie and her community have spent in hopes of forcing their elected officials to respect their human right to safe, affordable drinking water and sanitation has been unsuccessful. In 2017, Valerie is still fighting for the simple right to access water. This is a fight to protect tens of thousands of people.
Valerie, and the Detroit community, are working with Food & Water Watch to pass and implement an income-based water affordability plan (like the one approved by Detroit City Council in 2006), so that people can finally have access to the safe, affordable water service that they deserve.
We already have a commitment from Detroit City Council Member Mary Sheffield (District 5) to introduce an income-based water affordability ordinance in Detroit this year but join us and tell Congress to create a dedicated, sustainable source of funding to update our essential drinking water. Let’s tell them to support Congressman John Conyers’ (D-MI) Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability (WATER) Act (H.R. 1673). It’s time to invest in our nation’s water infrastructure and make water service safe and affordable for everyone!
Taylor Avery is a summer communications intern at Food & Water Watch.