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Published on: 09/07/2014

Much of the discussion on these shutoffs revolves around the question of whether the residents of Detroit should have their water cut off if they are unable to pay for their bills. Proponents of the shutoffs state that water may be a human right, but if it is purified, monitored and brought to your home it becomes a service, and this service has to be paid for. Those opposing the shutoffs, among them Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation, state that disconnections may not occur when there is genuine inability to pay.

This in turn leads to a discussion on what an affordable service is and how to quantify this (see IRC's Catarina Fonseca's contribution to this debate). In fact, it appears that the water tariffs in Detroit are exceptionally high (almost twice as high as the US average according to NY Times).

However, there is more to this story. First and foremost, this is related to who is shut off and who isn't. While the residents of Detroit who aren't able to pay their bills in time, of which the majority are low-income African Americans, are targeted by the disconnections, commercial customers such as golf courses and sports fields are allowed to amass large unpaid bills. Second, thegives an intimate view of the implication of the Detroit shutoffs on its citizens). Third, it seems that there are some poor management choices being made by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. As more people are being shut off, the water bills for the remaining customers only rise as fixed costs and debts remain high. Leakages remain undealt with and are billed to residents, and interest payments on debt make up for half of the expenses of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. I agree with the reasoning that one should pay for a water service brought to the home, but should one also have to pay for inadequate financial and operational management of a water utility?

Also, one must not forget the financial problems that the city of Detroit is in. As manufacturing plants have left the city, many have lost their job and abandoned their homes. As tax incomes have dropped the city has applied for bankruptcy and the Governor of Michigan has appointed an emergency manager whose power supersedes that of elected officials. Many (ex-)public servants stand the chance of losing their pension funds due to this bankruptcy. This great article explains the circumstances and poor financial choices that were made in the past leading to the current situation. This includes elected officials refusal of tough economic and political decisions and Wall Street's aid in borrowing ever more by issuing municipal bonds (among which on the water and sewerage department). It is in this context that water connections are shut off to relieve the debt of the water department.

There are no clear-cut answers to quickly resolve the situation Detroit is in. However, various initiatives have sprung up from citizen groups. For example, there is an account available for low-income customers who need help paying their bills with nearly $1 million available. This account is funded by a programme that takes 50 cents from other residential customers' bills that choose to opt for this scheme.

Water management requires technical expertise, financial capabilities and political savvy. But most of all, sound water management requires human and social skills. The vital necessity of water makes this service more than just a commercial activity. A public water service deals with citizens, not merely customers. This means that citizens groups are crucial stakeholders for water utility managers to engage with, not a nuisance to be ignored. Shutoffs should, in turn, be the very last measure for a municipal water department, not the starting point to engage with your fellow citizens.

As IRC we are keen to engage in these debates, and help think along with municipal water utilities and citizen groups. Follow this space for upcoming blogs on the discussion around the link between the right to water and sanitation and the lobbying around the post-2015 sustainable development goals. We also want to engage on the discussion around finance. As the Detroit case with all its dubious bond issues shows, there are quite some questions around accountability: who's accountable to whom, and for what? And last but not least around sanitation. If we accept that some cities are going to shrink due to socio-economic changes, will it remain feasible to keep large centralised systems in place? How can we scale down towards decentralized infrastructure and management thereof?

Thanks to Rachel Cardone for her valuable insights and contributions.


At IRC we have strong opinions and we value honest and frank discussion, so you won't be surprised to hear that not all the opinions on this site represent our official policy.

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