On water issues, it’s Detroit versus the U.N.

Monica Lewis-Patrick; and Lila Cabbil

For the second time in recent months, the United Nations has looked at the fact that thousands of Detroit families are without water and determined that there are better, more humane solutions to the problem than those used by Detroit’s mayor.

A panel, which included two U.N. special rapporteurs, heard testimony on Oct. 19 at a hearing with hundreds in attendance at Wayne County Community College’s Fort Street campus. Having implemented his 10-point plan to deal with water shutoffs, Mayor Mike Duggan rebuffed the U.N. panelists who took testimony from Detroiters.

While the 10-point plan could be a starting point for negotiations (if the mayor were up for negotiating with anyone on this issue) both the plan and his response fail to recognize the reality the people of Detroit are facing.

Detroit is America’s poorest big city, with 38 percent of residents living at or below the poverty line and an unemployment rate of 14.6 percent. The United Way recently released a report that shows two-thirds of Detroiters can’t afford basic needs like transportation, housing and health care, even when people in their households are working full time. When you combine these dire numbers with the leaky pipes and bureaucratic foul-ups of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, you have a recipe for injustice and disaster.

The U.N.’s second condemnation of the massive water shutoffs is part of a chorus of public health advocates and officials that are demanding an alternative to depriving families of water. Those voices include National Nurses United, professor John Powell, co-chairman of the Population Health Council, and Dr. Mouhanad Hammami, county health officer for the Wayne County Department of Public Health. Hammami and Powell wrote an open letter calling the shutoffs a public health hazard and citing a double bind: People in poverty are already more likely to be in poor health. Being deprived of water only increases health risks.

In plain terms, the only humane solution is to create a plan where people at a certain income threshold pay for water based on their income. This would keep the water flowing to families that need it and the revenue flowing to a system that requires it. We would stop squeezing families struggling to make ends meet and instead make sure corporations who clearly have the ability to pay are no longer allowed to let their bills pile up without retribution.

We actually have a plan that was passed by the City Council in 2006. The Water Affordability Plan guarantees water and revenue based on people’s ability to pay. But one thing needed to implement the plan has yet to occur in City Hall — a paradigm shift. Recognizing how utterly crucial access to water is to families and embracing a practical plan to make sure families are never without it takes vision and courage.

It takes courage to acknowledge that you’ve been an accessory to devastating entire neighborhoods, as one North End Detroit resident said at the U.N. hearing. There is no one there to help when blocks of people are without water. Seniors that are housebound, renters who have to wait for landlords to turn the water back on, and children who have no control of family finances are among the hardest hit. But everyone needs water.

It may be hard for Mayor Duggan to hear and see the devastation continue to get international attention, but that’s not nearly as hard as life for thousands of residents who can’t afford the basics. The mayor’s plan needs to take that truth into account and adjust to fit the needs of the people, not the other way around.

Monica Lewis-Patrick is director of outreach for We the People of Detroit. Lila Cabbil is president emeritus of the Rosa Parks Institute. Both are members of the Detroit People’s Water Board.