|In addition to the water news out of Detroit, the UN has declared the U.S.
to be in violation of international human rights laws by not supplying clean
water to the poor.
BY KAREN PIPER
Author and professor of postcolonial studies in English and adjunct professor in geography at the University of Missouri
Flushing a toilet in Detroit has become a sign of white privilege. There, residents are facing what people in poor countries have experienced for decades: massive water cut-offs. Thousands of connections are being shut off per week as the city attempts to pay down its debt and attract a private contractor to lease its bankrupt water utility.
In one of the most segregated cities in America, the predominantly black urban center is suffering, while those in the mostly white suburbs continue taking showers, washing cars, and filling swimming pools. This is an environmental justice issue, a human rights issue, and a national sovereignty issue. Detroit’s water customers may well receive cut-off notices from France in near the future, where the world’s largest water multinationals are based. These companies, Suez and Veolia, are currently in the market for bankrupt American utilities. But the U.S. government says we cannot afford to supply our citizens with clean water anymore. We will try to make the poor pay instead, and possibly pay France. Water rates in Detroit have gone up 119 percent in preparations for privatization.
Finally, the UN has taken notice, stating the U.S. is in violation of international human rights laws by not supplying clean water to the poor. “Sick people have been left without running water and working toilets,” a panel of three experts from the UN Human Rights Office said in a statement issued on June 25. “People recovering from surgery cannot wash and change bandages. Children cannot bathe and parents cannot cook.” UN special rapporteur Leilani Farha said that if the water disconnections disproportionately affect African Americans, “they may be discriminatory, in violation of treaties the U.S. has ratified.”
It is yet to be seen if the U.S. will pay attention to the UN’s scathing review of its water policies. At the very least, the UN has provided an embarrassing commentary on our dwindling status in the world. We have been gutting our water infrastructure budget since the days of Ronald Reagan and now need around one trillion dollars to keep it up and running. Instead, Republicans have consistently pushed for privatization of our water utilities, opposing what the Cato Institute calls “water socialism.” They want water capitalism, it seems.
Meanwhile in Detroit, Mayor Mike Duggan claims there has been “significant misinformation” about the water cut-offs. Things are not so bad, he said. There were only 46,000 water cut-off notices in May, and only 4,531 cut-offs—only 4,531 new toilets that will not flush, babies’ bottoms that cannot be wiped, wounds that cannot be cleaned. He thinks that is not too much. Water and Sewage Department Director Sue McCormick has also tried to allay residents’ fears, stating, “Unpaid Detroit water bills affect only Detroit customers. No suburban customers pay any extra on their bills to make up for unpaid bills on Detroit addresses.” People in the suburbs will be fine, she assures us; they will not be asked to pay more to keep the water running downtown. As for the U.S. government, it may be forced to pay more by the UN. If the U.S. does not correct this violation of human rights law by providing financial assistance to those who cannot pay for water, it faces UN punitive actions and a further lessening of status abroad.
“A wonderful book—full of commitment, deeply moving, with stories of real people affected by corporate water grabs. I highly recommend The Price of Thirst.”
—Maude Barlow, chair of the board of Food & Water Watch
“Will conflicts over water define the 21st century as the battle to control oil did the 20th? Karen Piper gives us a vivid, inside view of the bizarre world of the water privatizers and their friends in the World Bank. She also offers inspiring account of their opponents: the emerging global movement to make clean water a universal human right.”
—Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums