Can the US Keep the Water Flowing?

Written for teleSUR English, which will launch on July 24

Long-in-the-making, the water crisis in Detroit—with hundreds of thousands having their water supply threatened—has rightfully focused national and global attention on an ongoing human rights violation in the United States. It has also highlighted the work of resilient community-based organizations like the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization that have been on-the-ground and working on this issue over the years. Despite their work and the growing national awareness, this is an unfamiliar space for most Americans – a water crisis in the United States?

It may be tempting to explain away Detroit as an exception, alleging that it was a poorly-managed city in a harsh global economy. Looking more closely at the problem and relating Detroit’s experience to an altogether “successful” American city—Boston—suggests that the world has cause for concern about water in the United States.

One remarkable feature of the crisis merits consideration before turning to Boston: a coalition of local (Detroit-based) and neighboring Canadian organizations took the issue directly to the United Nations. It prompted the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, to remind local officials of the simple fact that “when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections.”

This raises the question: why did the activists go to the UN? The answer is straightforward: the federal government, which can routinely fund the bombing of Gaza or even its ostensible opponents in Iraq and Syria, has lethargically focused on technocratic solutions and complex public-private partnerships to aid—but not really bailout—Detroit. For all the talk of “smart government,” the Feds remain better at deploying the actual cavalry (abroad) than at keeping the water flowing (anywhere).

But the Feds are accountable to the international treaties that the US government ratifies—e.g. the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. For this reason, activist groups are trying to leverage the government’s reporting obligations to draw attention to a ranges of issues, including the Human Right to Water.  The former, now firmly established in international law, holds that everyone should have access to safe, sufficient and affordable supplies of water. How meaningful this is depends on the outcome of struggles that the grassroots wage.

Working for Massachusetts Global Action (MGA), this writer recently testified on his organization’s research regarding Boston at a State Department “Civil Society Consultation” mandated by the treaty. Calling attention to MGA’s startling finding that for every 2 percent increase in people of color by city ward, there is a corresponding 3 percent increase in the issuance of water shutoff notices, he raised the problem of water insecurity in a city normally seen to epitomize success.

Of course, community activists have long painted a much more complex picture: Community Labor United speaks of “two cities” shaped by an hourglass economy in which the top 20% has seen its income grow by 20% while those in poverty have seen their incomes shrink by 2% in the 2000s.

With respect to water (and the related sanitation infrastructure), Boston has the benefit of a cutting-edge pair of public water utilities. Since their founding in the 70s and 80s, they have spectacularly cleaned up the Boston Harbor (once a major source of embarrassment for a presidential contender claiming environmental cred), efficiently piped water to every household, largely eliminating lead hazards, and built a water infrastructure that, for example, can let residents know—in real time—if their home plumbing has leaks!

At the same time, the “retailer” does not provide public reports on the impacts of its water-shutoff policy nor even on the effects of price changes.

The utilities are part of a national public-private partnership—the Value of Water Coalition—that is urging increased spending on infrastructure. The coalition includes such notorious private transnational operators as Veolia and Suez.

So here we have a national coalition of multi-billion entities urging us to spend more on water without the benefit of a national or even local monitoring system that will allow us to know if a price change will cause shutoffs and other hardships. As importantly, we do not know the impacts of prices on particularly vulnerable parts of the community: households with young children, elderly or infirm residents, and people with disabilities.

In Boston, MGA found that in one neighborhood, nearly as many water shutoff notices were issued over a year as there were households! Overall, low-income wards in Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan—now largely immigrant and African American—are 10 times more likely to be threatened with water shutoff notices than the ever affluent Back Bay, Beacon Hill and Prudential neighborhoods.

At a community hearing on the issue, a high school student testified about her family’s high water bills, noting that her father struggles to pay well over a hundred dollars each month. This burden approaches Detroit-level rates of about $150/month. The Boston Water and Sewer Commission expects the average family of four’s bills to be about $80/month. For many working people, this will be wrapped into their escalating rent payments. Unfortunately, as things currently stand, water prices are projected to increase every year into the foreseeable future and to do so at rates far in excess of inflation. Although lower than Detroit’s charges, “successful” Boston still has steep water bills and Mass. Global Action’s research has demonstrated the unequal outcomes.

One reason for the steep bills is the continuing repayment of debt from the mostly successful $3.5 billion clean-up of Boston Harbor – passed on to all residents regardless of ability to pay… Or degree of benefit for that matter – after all, urban waterfront property, the preserve of the rich, certainly had its lot greatly improved by the cleanup when compared with the concrete and tar-enclosed communities that nonetheless pay the same rates.

Writing about its early days, one writer notes, “Boston’s patchwork system of private wells and cisterns and a single water company was failing.’’ A reviewer summarized the result: “Wealthy Bostonians could afford to have clean water piped directly to their homes, but the average citizen had to settle for well water contaminated by minerals and pollutants from nearby factories. Poor and working-class families hardly ever saw a drop. A major public health crisis loomed…” Two-hundred years later, what was true of Boston in the 1820s, is now true of Detroit and perhaps even in Boston’s future.

Suren Moodliar is a coordinator of Massachusetts Global Action and its projects encuentro5 and the Color of Water. He may be contacted via email to: suren [ at ] fairjobs <dot> org.

Links included in this article:

Community Labor United on the Boston’s “Hourglass Economy”: <http://massclu.org/sites/clud6.prometheuslabor.com/files/CLU+M%26M+Exercise_0.pdf >

Detroit Water Crisis, New York Times article < http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/04/opinion/going-without-water-in-detroit.html >

Eden on the Charles by Michael Rawson: < http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674048416 >

Michigan Welfare Rights Organization < http://michiganwro.blogspot.com/ >; see also MWRO’s Maureen Taylor on TV correcting media bias < http://egbertowillies.com/2014/07/08/maureen-taylor-hank-winchester-detroit-water/ >

Reports on Boston: < http://bit.ly/CERDmga > Color of Water Report: < http://bit.ly/c_H2O >

United Nations on the situation in Detroit <http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=14777 >

US Human Rights Network Shadow Reports to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination < http://www.ushrnetwork.org/cerd-shadow-reports >

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