Detroit’s water: Behind the crisis

The water crisis in Detroit is an American emergency.

In March the Detroit Water and Sewage Department announced it will start cutting off water to households across the city [Getty Images]

“When it comes to peoples safety, money wins out of every time” 

– Gil Scott Heron, “We Almost Lost Detroit” 

I am a Detroiter. I grew up in the Warrendale neighbourhood, on the city’s westside. It is an enclave that sits at the intersection of Detroit’s majority African-American population and its thriving Arab-American community. These walls that separate residents of Detroit along racial and economic lines may soon be washed away and replaced by an even more primordial divide – access to water.

Since the 1967 race rebellions, Detroit has occupied the role of municipal pariah in the national media. It has become a cautionary tale, deployed to warn Americans about the horrors of crime and poverty, racial segregation and municipal bankruptcy.

As a result, national media has created a sense of collective pity for Detroit by illustrating “the post-apocalyptic hellhole” as an aberration, a blight on the map, cut off from the “prototypical” American experience. Much of the national coverage focusing on Detroit’s most recent trial – the water crisis – unsurprisingly flows in this direction. 

Missing from the flood of stories about Detroit’s decline, abject poverty, and rustbelt apocalyptic narratives coming from outside the city is an indigenous story. A story about racial isolation, the politics of municipal shrinkage, a proud people fractured from the rest of their state and country, and a proliferating population of Americans denied the most fundamental human right: access to water. Until this crisis is reframed as an American human rights emergency, the same song of “money win[ing] out every time” will imminently jeopardise water access for Americans near and far from Detroit. 

Behind the water crisis

Thousands of Detroit residents are currently living without water. The Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) announced in March, and subsequently commenced, plans to cut off water for “homes with delinquent bills” at a rate of 3,000 homes per week. It recently tweeted, “If you’re stealing water, we’re coming after you”.

By summer’s end, it is projected that DWSD will cut off the water services of 150,000 residents in total. Community leaders believe that as many as 300,000 Detroiters could be cut off from water access within a year.

These figures are staggering, particularly in light of the city’s diminishing population of 700,000 residents. Therefore, according to projections, as much as 45 percent of the city’s residents could be without water in the near future. Although a 15-day moratorium was enacted on July 21, the cutoffs will be sure to continue without federal intervention. 

‘Pay your bills’

“Pay your bills” has become a common refrain from this crisis. Yet, 38 percent of Detroiters live below the poverty line, unemployment and under-employment is pervasive, while the price of water has skyrocketed 120 percent in 10 years. A diminished public transportation system exacerbates poverty and spatial segregation, and limits residents from finding – and keeping – gainful employment beyond city limits. 

Fault Lines – Water for coal

The eastside of Detroit, which faces aggressive mass water cutoffs, highlights the cascade of challenges Detroit residents have to cope with while living without water. For the rapidly rising number of Detroiters cutoff from water on the city’s east end, purchasing water off the shelves is the only option.

Yet, there are no grocery stores on the eastside, gas stations and liquor stores hold geographic monopolies over essential products. Disconnected, spatially segregated, and overwhelmingly poor, residents are compelled to consume what these businesses offer. With water becoming more scarce on merchant shelves, they have to live with little drinking, cooking and bathing water. 

Living in an urban water desert, residents of the eastside are already facing price gouging by local businesses. Some have had to resort to stealing water from the few operable fire hydrants, homes, and neighbourhood businesses in order to survive water shortages. 

New world water

In spirit and statistics, Detroit is still a black city. African-Americans comprise 83 percent of the city’s population. Therefore, the vast majority of those affected by the water cutoffs, and the perils they create, are black Detroiters.

The acute and disproportionate impact on black residents may appear to be driven solely by economic factors. However, a native testimony illuminates that racism, and a vision for the city based partly on racial reformation, pumps current water politics. The aggressive water cutoffs may be part of the broader plan to shrink the physical size of the city, and compel residents of under-populated and “undesirable” sections of the city, such as the eastside, to move.    

The water crisis stops at 8 Mile – the iconised thoroughfare dividing black from white, wealthy from working class. Yet water still flows to many businesses located within the city that generally serve white and middle class patrons.

Some of these businesses, including Detroit’s flagship golf course, Ford Field and Joe Louis Arena, home to the City’s NFL and NHL franchises, have not paid their water bills either, but they still receive water.

Water under pressure

Not far from these golf courses and stadiums are sights of Black and Brown Detroiters walking down major avenues, carrying water tanks atop their shoulders. These images, generally associated with life in war-torn and “distant, disenfranchised lands”, are becoming more and more common in Detroit.

While largely framed as a symptom of Detroit’s impending death on the national media front, the water crisis is an unequivocally American emergency. Although residents of a city maligned as disconnected and deviant – Detroiters are still American citizens, guaranteed water provision by the United Nations and human rights law.  Washington DC, while quick to respond to foreign concerns, has yet to act on Detroit. 

Detroit, and its water crisis, is far closer than we all think. Therefore, pushing Washington DC to act in the interests of Detroiters living without water right now will create the basis for government action when residents of New York and California and elsewhere are also threatened by a water crisis.

Khaled A Beydoun is the Critical Race Studies Teaching Fellow at the UCLA School of Law. 

Follow him on Twitter: @KhaledBeydoun