Detroit Residents Have “No Right To Free Water” As Shut-off Continues

Credit: Eric Thayer/Reuters

Credit: Eric Thayer/Reuters

As Detroit shuts off water service for tens of thousands of Detroit residents, scenes of mothers, children, the sick and low-income workers deprived of water have provoked outrage and generated national and international attention.

Since 2013, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has been turning off water on customers that have fallen behind on their bills. As Detroit has become the largest American city to file for bankruptcy, this shut-off campaign has been used as a way to hasten the city’s recovery.

Despite charges by the UN that the water shutoffs were a violation of international human rights, Detroit has not shifted its policy. Kevyn Orr, the city’s unelected emergency manager, said:

“I’m very supportive of the water department’s and the Board of Water Commissioners’ decision to do what every other regulated utility does in the United States, which is, if you use water you’ve got to pay for it.” [source]

Orr made light of the “hysteria out there that we are cutting off water to tens of thousands of people” and said that “less than five percent” of the people whose water was being shut off “had legitimate needs.” He also stated that most of the victims of this inhumane policy were “drug addicts, illegal squatters, scofflaws and the people gaming the system” that should not be “provided with a free service.”

Orr’s claim that these “scofflaws” were causing rates to go up for paying customers has been debunked by the water department, who stated that the rising rates are due to the disappearance of federal funding to repair the water system and the high cost of debt servicing. For every dollar in revenue, fifty cents goes into the Wall Street banks and wealthy bondholders who use the municipally owned water system as a cash cow.

Orr’s message remains clear: If you do not pay for something, you have to do without it. People do not have the right to water any more than food, shelter or any other vital necessity.

This brutal outlook was echoed by Nolan Finley, a right-wing columnist for the Detroit News. Finley headlined an opinion piece on Thursday “There is no right to free water.” To justify the inhumane shutoff policy, Finley turned to the Old Testament. He wrote:

“Ever since Adam and Eve got booted out of Eden, people have devoted most of their energy and labor to meeting the basic needs of food, water, clothing and shelter. It’s the origin of work—you’re hungry, you’re thirsty, you need some decent threads and a roof over your head, you have to get up in the morning and do something constructive.” [source]

Finley also accused residents of wasting their money on cable and mobile phones instead of necessities. He said that once the shutoffs began, many households started to pay their bills, “suggesting that they could have been paying all along.” Finley declared that the water shutoff “is not a humanitarian crisis” but a “forced reordering of priorities.”

In actuality, many residents might have stopped paying for food, medicine or other necessities to turn their water back on. Even sadder, thousands of others are continuing to live without water. Some are taking water from their neighbor’s homes and fire hydrants or relying on bottled water from volunteers.

According to Orr and Finley, workers have no social rights, and things like pensions, health care and public education will only be available to those who can afford it.

In response to the water shutoff, many groups are rallying and protesting.