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International Social Movements Gathering in Detroit

Over the weekend, more than 300 community organizers and activists gathered in Detroit for the International Social Movements Gathering on Water Rights and Housing Rights. The gathering was organized by the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and the Detroit People’s Water Board Coalition and brought together activists from across the United States, as well as Canada, Italy, Brazil, and Mexico. Over the course of the weekend, participants discussed strategies and solutions to demand water and housing affordability for all people, grounded in the conviction that water is a human right.  The Council of Canadians was there in solidarity and to strategize on protecting the human right to water.

The gathering was called in response to water shut-offs in the city of Detroit, Michigan. Last March, Detroit began shutting off water services to 1,500 to 3,000 households every week. In a city where 40% of the population lives in poverty and thousands of unionized jobs have been lost, rising water bills can represent up to 20% of a family’s income. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque at the time, declared the shut-offs a violation of basic human rights. Despite a temporary moratorium and the opposition of City Council, shut-offs have started once again. For background on the shut-offs, please see blogs from Emma Lui and Meera Karunananthan

Testimony presented over the weekend highlighted the danger and distress shut-offs cause families and communities. Water services are often shut-off without warning, but water board employees also mark houses scheduled for shut-off with blue paint, stigmatizing families within their communities. Low-income households and communities of colour are systematically targeted while corporate accounts retain service despite enormous unpaid bills. Communities are particularly concerned about child welfare and family preservation. When water is shut-off, the water board immediately informs child protective services who are obligated to remove children from an environment deemed unsafe. Water shut-offs also represent a public health crisis. Even where families manage to pay their water bills, they are doing so by severely limiting their spending on other essentials. Many households are making the choice between their water bills and food for their families.

The situation in Detroit is unacceptable but not unique. Communities from across Michigan and the United States brought stories of water shut-offs and inaccessibility. In Flint, many communities have been issued boiled water advisories or told to keep using water that General Motors claims isn’t fit for even industrial purposes. In Baltimore, water shut-offs were announced in March and are now starting to take place even as protests over police brutality continue. Across the United States, the human right to water is being violated. 

The human right to water in Detroit is further violated by water contamination. As witnessed on a tour of neighbourhoods in Detroit, low-income communities are forced to live in close proximity to the Marathon Refinery, where the by-product of tar sands oil, petcoke, is processed. Marathon has denied the health effects experienced by community members, including chemical rashes and a high rate of certain cancers.

The water crisis is also intimately tied to precarious housing and the threat of foreclosures. When families cannot pay water bills, the bills are added onto property taxes, increasing the likelihood of tax foreclosures. In a city that has lost much of its population and tax base, property taxes are regularly higher than the worth of the house itself. 

Activists in Detroit refuse to be silenced and continue to fight back. The Detroit Peoples’ Water Board continues to push for affordability rather than an assistance plan. A lawsuit is moving forward in the appeals stage and national legislation on water affordability is being pursued. Yesterday, Detroit activists presented at a hearing on water affordability at the state capitol in Lansing. In July, a march is being planned from Detroit to Flint to highlight the human right to water across Michigan.  

Detroit is also connected to a global movement for water justice. Throughout the weekend, community members highlighted privatization as a growing threat and obstacle to the right to water. Veolia is one of the corporations currently seeking to privatize Detroit’s water system. Veolia enjoys special consultative status with the city, putting it in an ideal position to advocate for structural changes that will maximize their profits. The Blue Planet Project was recently in Daegu, South Korea to launch a campaign against Veolia and will continue to support communities worldwide fighting against privatization. 

Detroit activists are not alone. The Council of Canadians and the Blue Planet Project stand in solidarity with  communities in Michigan and across the United States who are experiencing violations of their human right to water. Please support activists in Detroit by signing our petition to President Obama, Governor Snyder, and Mayor Duggan telling them to turn the taps back on!