Detroit’s poorest vent anger at authorities who have turned water off
America Letter: water department $6 billion in debt struggling in bankrupt US city
A protest against the mass water shut-offs in Detroit. Photograph: Reuters/Rebecca Cook
They’re easy to spot. A streak of neon blue paint on the footpaths outside identifies the homes in Detroit that haven’t paid their water bills. To some, the blue paint, sprayed next to valves by the city water department’s shut-off technicians, is a mark of shame, not knowing they are in the same stressed position as thousands of others.
More than 15,000 of Detroit’s poorest residents have had their water shut off as the city tries to recoup $89 million on unpaid bills, part of a wider austerity drive aimed at trying to turn around the fortunes of The US’s 18th most populous city. Detroit made history last year, becoming the country’s largest municipal bankruptcy as the city’s finances collapsed under the weight of more than $18 billion in debt.
In a city designed to function with a population two million people, Detroit’s 700,000 population can no longer pay the city’s way. The majestic art-deco skyscrapers and masterpiece-filled art institute, a target for the city’s creditors, are reminders of Detroit’s once illustrious past as “Motor City”, the hub of a booming car industry. Now, even the flow of water is not guaranteed.
The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, which services about 43 per cent of Michigan’s population, is shouldering $6 billion in debt. In a week when water charges were set for Irish households and new data showed the deepening scale of California’s three-year drought, the experience of Detroit on the Great Lakes, the US’s largest expanse of fresh water, shows the high cost of water.
Shut-off noticeAvatara Qtub’s first water bill at her new address amounted to $1,000. It came with a shut-off notice at the start of last month, a day after she moved into her new house near Eight Mile, the Detroit suburb immortalised in the 2002 film starring rapper Eminem.
It takes the 62-year-old mother of nine about two weeks to earn $1,000 as a health worker and holistic nutritionalist for the ill.
“I don’t have $1,000 but I have to pay it one way or another, otherwise they are going to come to cut the water off,” said Qtub (62).
The city suspended the shut-offs last month to allow people time to prove their inability to pay amid national and international uproar after thousands of residents protested. US judge Steven Rhodes, who presides over Detroit’s bankruptcy, criticised the city’s handling of delinquent accounts, while the United Nations also denounced the cut-offs, saying water is a human right.
“The water is not the issue,” said Qtub. “The issue is the right to an adequate standard of living and that includes water and sanitation.”