By Sergio Legorreta
There is no legal right to clean water. But is there a human right to water? More importantly, what happens to the individuals who lose access to water?
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes on Monday denied a request to delay water shut-offs to delinquent customers in Detroit. The shut-offs are affecting the poorest residents in the city who can’t afford to pay for water service, according to Circle of Blue, a news outlet that focuses its coverage on the world’s resource crisis. The city cut thousands of residents’ water connections in recent years; about 24,000 city water accounts have been shut off this year.
Rhodes said there is no right to clean water—even to those who are able to pay. Granted, it has become increasingly difficult to pay. Detroit has raised water rates multiple times in recent years, with an 8.7 percent rate hike in July. The cost increases come despite Detroit being one of the poorest cities in the United States, with an unemployment rate of 23.1 percent and poverty levels above 30 percent.
The shut-offs are spurred by the city’s plan to reduce debt and make its water department a more attractive asset in negotiations. There may be some economic sense in the shut-offs, as the total outstanding water bills have been cut in half since spring. Unfortunately, this apparent gain may have dire long-term consequences.
The poorest residents whose water was cut will still have a need for water, especially if there is any hope for them to overcome their poverty. They will still need to bathe and wash clothes to be presentable for work or job interviews, at a minimum. They will still have to drink when they are thirsty and find ways to survive. What will happen to these residents? They will have to resort to finding ways of obtaining water.
Maureen Taylor, chair of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, said she’s seen neighborhoods where people borrow water from their neighbors’ hoses running through the window of their house.
Though there is a fund and a plan in place to help educate low-income residents, cutting off their access to water is still harmful. Residents will have a harder time obtaining water, which will make their lives even more difficult than they already are. They will have to buy it at a store, like resident Carol Ann Bogden does. They will have to ask for water churches, such as Peter’s Episcopal church.
They will have to collect and purify rainwater, as DeMeeko Williams does to distribute to others. People should be focused on improving their situation, not worrying how and when they can obtain clean water.
If residents can’t focus on bettering their situation, they will stay in perpetual poverty – or worse, they will decline. Detroit is already in great troubles, and one can name its unemployment rate, its poverty levels and its crime rates as if they were abstract concepts or just numbers. Problems, however, affect real people, and long-term change in communities can only come from individuals.
Instead of helping Detroit overcome its problems by giving a helping hand to individuals, the water shut-offs will only further create problems as the poor will an even harder time rising and an easier time falling.
The biggest issue is that these changes affect people on more than an economic scale—they affect people’s lives and their ability to live in decent conditions. Many of these residents are struggling to simply survive day to day, and they deserve a helping hand in helping themselves.
The United Nations agrees on this fundamental issue of human rights. The U.N. Special Rapporteur on drinking water issues said it is against human rights to shut off water when there is a genuine inability to pay.
We would do well to take a note from those who share their water with their neighbors. Our neighbors are still human, and they deserve life, help and respect.
Sergio Legorreta is a senior business journalism major from Kingwood. He is a reporter for the Lariat.