Detroit Water Brigade Fights for Basic Human Right of Clean Drinking Water

Detroit Water Brigade Fights for Basic Human Right of Clean Drinking Water

There are many variables that factor into water access, including geography, socio-economics, climate change. The fact that water is necessary to sustain human life, however, is undeniable. In 1977 the United Nations Water Conference declared water to be a human right, stating “All peoples, whatever their stage of development and social and economic conditions, have the right to have access to drinking water in quantities and of a quality equal to their basic need.” The UN has reaffirmed this principle many times in the subsequent decades, and in 2009, concluded, “States have an obligation to address and eliminate discrimination with regard to access to sanitation.” 

Photo credit: Detroit Water Brigade

Despite these resolutions, many people worldwide remain without clean drinking water. Every year, roughly 1.5 million children under the age of five contract illnesses from contaminated drinking water and die. The UN estimates that 1.2 billion people live in geographically water scarce regions, and another 1.6 billion are affected by economic water shortages, meaning their countries “lack the necessary infrastructure to take water from rivers and aquifers.” This means that for nearly half the world’s population, free access to clean drinking water is a luxury they simply cannot afford. The bottling of water from aquifers in one region to be sold at profit in another region only exacerbates this problem.

The most immediate consequence of this practice is the drop it causes in the aquifer. This means that the wells drilled by local residents are no longer deep enough to reach clean drinking water, leading to contaminated water flowing into the drinking water supply, causing disease. In coastal areas, this can also cause saltwater intrusion, making the water completely undrinkable. Saltwater seeping into wells also has drastic environmental effects, killing agriculture and natural vegetation, as well as fish and other aquatic life. Even without saltwater intrusion, just depleting the aquifer changes the flow of sediment in local streams, disrupting food sources for fish and impacting entire ecosystems. Another huge problem is the infrastructure needed to transport water out of rural areas, leading to issues similar to those seen with fossil fuel extraction and logging. This, combined with the obvious environmental concerns surrounding plastic bottle production, makes water bottling an environmental nightmare.

The most pressing concern for water rights activists is negative health effects caused by the lack of clean drinking water. According to recent reports, Nestle is found to be a primary offender of violating human rights. In places like Pakistan, where clean drinking water is already hard to come by, Nestle is tapping the aquifers, bottling the water and selling it back to the wealthiest residents, while poor villages see their wells run dry because of this practice. Maude Barlow, a former UN chief advisor for water issues, states, “When a company like Nestle comes along and says, ‘Pure Life is the answer, we’re selling you your own ground water while nothing comes out of your faucets anymore or if it does it’s undrinkable’—that’s more than irresponsible, that’s practically a criminal act.”

Water privatization is not just a problem in places like Pakistan, however. It’s happening right here in the U.S. In Fryeburg, ME, Nestle has sought, through their subsidiary, Poland Spring, to extract ground water to be bottled and sold internationally. The local residents there have protested the contract between Poland Spring and Fryeburg Water Company, fighting to stop Nestle from extracting their groundwater at an unsustainable rate. 

In Michigan, Nestle is causing more problems. Three Native American tribes filed a lawsuit in 2002 against Perrier’s subsidiary, Great Spring Waters of America and Michigan Governor John Engler. (Because Nestle bought Perrier in 1992, this makes Great Springs part of their portfolio). The Michigan natives claimed that Perrier was violating the 1986 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) by extracting water from the Great Lakes Basin to be bottled and resold. The plaintiffs claimed that the practice of pumping out 575,000 gallons per day would lower the water table for the entire Great Lakes region. They went on to predict that this would diminish local rivers and streams, affect navigation on rivers and lakes, and harm the commercial fishing industry. Nestle and the state argued that bottled water is classified as a food product, and therefor exempt from the WRDA. The judge ultimately threw the case out before it saw conclusion, saying the plaintiffs did not have the right to sue under the WRDA. The state of Michigan still has no limits to the amount of water that may be extracted. 

Currently in Detroit, MI, residents are facing a water shortage of a different kind. Since May, the Detroit Water Authority has sought to stop service to 3,000 households per week, for being $150 or more delinquent on their bills. In a city where 40 percent of residents are living at or below the poverty level, this translates to the most vulnerable segment of the population being denied a basic necessity.

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“It’s been a lot of stress and worry,” says Meeko Williams, spokesperson of the Detroit Water Brigade (DWB), an organization bringing relief to those most affected by the shutoffs. “A lot of seniors are having their pensions snatched away, their healthcare compromised, and now they don’t have any water to drink. Children are being snatched away from their loving families because of their parents’ inability to pay the water bill, and also disabled veterans have been going through much stress and worry … So it’s been just an unfortunate situation, and we’re doing everything we can to try and assist those individuals.” 

Photo credit: Detroit Water Brigade

The Detroit Water Brigade was founded on June 1, in response to the mass shutoffs. Since then a small but growing group of volunteers has been collecting and distributing bottled water, rainwater collection and filtration systems, and other forms of support to families struggling to survive without water. They have also been collaborating with the People’s Water Board and the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization to try to get policy changed surrounding water access. Justin Wedes, the other co-founder of the DWB, says that the city is specifically targeting the city’s most defenseless people, while letting big corporate accounts go unpaid.

“The governor, Rick Snyder, through his appointed emergency [city] manager, who has usurped the democratically elected leadership of Detroit, has made it very clear that it’s going to be regular people who are going to pay the price for this deficit.” According to Wedes, roughly a combined $30 million in delinquent water debt is held by corporate and city owned accounts. That’s to say nothing of the numerous abandoned houses that are leaking water, but have not been disconnected by the water company.

“There is, I believe, a double standard in enforcement when it comes to commercial versus residential accounts,” Wedes claims. “The prime example is the Palmer Park golf course … a private golf course, which is now in public ownership … that is over $400,000 delinquent on its water bill. Now, with the oncoming bankruptcy proceedings, we’re going to see again and again, these examples of private debts being socialized, so that regular people are being forced to pay for things like golf courses.” Wedes chuckles at the inherent irony of this situation, and adds, “The citizens of Detroit do not uniformly benefit from the Palmer Park Golf Course.”

Wedes and his fellow activists have been raising their voices with a list of demands, including a moratorium on water shutoffs, as well as the reinstitution of the water affordability plan that was once the law of the land in Detroit. This plan states that citizens should pay no more than 2.5 percent of their pre-tax income on water. As of today, many residents are paying as much as 20 percent of their income, with Detroit water rates at nearly double the national average. In a city with some of the lowest income rates in the country, this prices people out of the water market altogether. The Detroit Water Brigade’s position is that rather than adopt what Wedes calls the “blame the poor mentality” which has been pushed through the local and national media, there is an opportunity to tell a different narrative, one of economic and ecological progress in the city of Detroit.

“Here is an opportunity to look at how we can better manage water in the city of Detroit,” Wedes states. “The storm water and drainage issue is one that we can immediately begin to correct.” With the majority of Detroit’s water debt being held by corporate and public entities, storm water drainage is a huge part of the problem. Companies say they simply can’t afford to pay the drainage fees. According to the DWB, there is a straightforward fix. 

“In cities like New York, citizens are offered grants if they can find more cost-effective ways to channel rainwater away from the drainage system,” says Wedes, who spent several years living and volunteering in New York before returning to Detroit. “They’ve taken these grants and built innovative new storm water retention systems; that for example utilize rainwater catchment barrels, storm water runoff gardens, and other green architecture in order to utilize the earth’s inherent capacity to absorb water.” 

With this huge chunk of water management out of the way, the city would be able to focus its limited resources on the citizens’ inability to pay. Wedes claims it’s not fair to expect the average Detroit resident to pay for a crisis caused by decades of poor urban planning. 

“It’s really only because of the advent of cities that humanity is facing this fabricated crisis of storm water flooding. So the next time your hear about dirty sewage water running off into a stream after a storm, ask yourself, ‘Why are we still thinking about cities in a way that is not in harmony with the water system?’” Wedes laments recent setbacks in Detroit’s environmental policy. The city shot down a proposal to bring goats in to keep overgrown vegetation in check. The state of Michigan also recently banned chickens in urban settings.

“That was done on false pretext,” Wedes claims. The argument for the ban was to protect residents from the sights, smells, and noises of farm animals, but Wedes states, “In reality, it was another handout to large agro-business.” With a situation as serious as Detroit’s water crisis, activists believe desperate measures are warranted. The DWB would like to see rainwater collected and filtered, used to flush toilets and wash clothing at the very least. They are also distributing water purification implements, so as to help residents who have had their water shut off collect rainwater and make it potable. 

“These types of alternatives will not only cut down on the cost to the department,” explains Wedes, “but also will decrease the environmental footprint and impact of the department and make for a more sustainable Detroit.”

In order to get some common sense solutions implemented, Detroit activists are going public with their demands by speaking out in the media, and organizing direct actions against water shutoffs.

“I believe it’s going to take people blockading the water shutoff trucks to get even this,” Wedes stated during a meeting at DWB headquarters last week. On Thursday, he made good on that threat, lining up with other activists to stop the trucks and ultimately being arrested. The last person to be removed from the blockade was Baxter Jones, a disabled Detroit resident who refused to move his wheelchair from in front of the truck until Police forcibly pulled him out of the way. At the planning meeting, Jones was fully on board with direct action.

“That’s what needs to happen,” Jones proclaimed. “Because you’re right, they don’t give a doggone, and they’re not going to give a doggone until they are shamed.” Some of the people present at the meeting were hesitant to take direct action, but Meeko Williams agreed wholeheartedly.

“People need to understand that this is a life and death situation,” Williams stated. “It’s hot today. Seniors have heat strokes, dehydration, all these other implications. We sit around here, thinking this is small change, but we need to be shutting down streets and raising hell.” Williams worries that if drastic action isn’t taken to achieve change, desperate citizens will take matters into their own hands.

“They’re fed up,” Williams explains. “People are gonna go downtown, and end up throwing a brick at Dan Gilbert’s buildings and tearing up downtown Detroit.” (Gilbert owns some of the properties delinquent on their water bills.) Members of the DWB claim anti-corporate sentiment is growing among Detroit’s impoverished citizens. 

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“We are not going to pay for their crisis,” Wedes proclaims. “We are not going to allow the banks and corporations to ruin our country, our neighborhoods, our families, our lives.” 

Thankfully, the Detroit Water Brigade is starting to get some help, as awareness surrounding the crisis spreads. In six short weeks, the DWB has gone from a two-man operation to an organization with dozens of volunteers, hundreds of donations, and public support from local politicians like Representative John Conyers. 

“Water is a human right; it’s necessary for life,” proclaims Conyers at a joint press conference held at DWB headquarters. Conyers believes there are a variety of factors that led to the water crisis. “In Detroit we have a shrinking population, with high unemployment,” he explains. “We also have an aging infrastructure. And on top of all that, the Department of Water and Sewage of the City of Detroit is understaffed.” Conyers went on to state that he has written to President Obama asking for funds to bail out the citizens of Detroit. He also proposed a sit-down meeting with the water department to broker a solution to the problem, without shutting off water to the city’s most vulnerable residents.

“We’ve got an emergency that demands immediate action,” he says, “regardless of what’s in the constitution.” Due to a law passed by republican-led state legislature, Detroit citizens have no legal recourse to challenge decisions made by emergency manager, Kevin Orr. Conyers says the time for amending the constitution is after the struggling population of Detroit has been restored access to water.

“The thing that bothers me most, is that there are some homes in which there are young people, kids, infants, who are going to be feeling the brunt of this; and I don’t hear anybody speaking out about this.” He went on to state that this is “the most important issue on my agenda,” to which he received a round of applause from the activists surrounding him.

Since the media blitz launched by the DWB and other organizations began, more and more support has started rolling in from across the country, and around the world. Their economic transparency page boasts donations from more than 20 states and several countries. Not-for-profit organizations as well as businesses are getting involved in the fight. A church group from Utah plans to drive a truck full of water to Detroit after collecting it from their local community. A guitar shop on Cleveland’s east side is donating a variety of instruments to be raffled off to benefit the Detroit Water Brigade. Shop owner Jason Falstreau immediately connected with the people being affected by the water crisis.

“This isn’t out of the realm of possibility in Cleveland,” says Falstreau. “This could happen in any poor city in the U.S. These people are our neighbors, and they need our help.” 

Erie Street Guitars will be raffling off several guitars in person on July 19, during the Willoughby Arts Fest. They will also be donating a Gibson Les Paul Studio to be raffled online by the Detroit Water Brigade. Donors can purchase tickets for that raffle until Aug. 31. This donation, combined with support shown by many in the arts communities, like Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, warms the heart of Danny McGlashing, who has been commuting to Detroit from Boston to help out.

“When a musician creates music, it comes from deep within and must flow freely outward,” says McGlashing. “Equally, water must flow freely if a city is going to thrive. In this, water and music are very much alike; it’s amazing to see the music community step up for Detroit during this water crisis.”

Community members all agree the plentiful water resources of Detroit, a Great Lakes city, should be accessible to all. Alex Hill, who has spent a great deal of time fighting for access to clean drinking water in remote African villages, is astonished it’s come to this in the U.S. 

“I was in Ghana and an organization had come in and built a community well, but then the community leadership put a lock on the well and required people to pay in order to access the water, when it was actually meant to be a community resource,” Hill cites. “Obviously those are low-resource settings whereas Detroit is a place of abundance … It’s just odd to have that juxtaposition.” Hill goes on to say that in his international efforts, he has never come across such hesitance to provide residents with clean drinking water as seems to be occurring in Detroit. 

“I can’t say there’s ever really been significant resistance to providing people with water,” he says. “Water is a human right, It’s a limited resource on the planet, and it’s going to take everyone to ensure that resource continues to be accessible … that makes it easier to monetize, make it a commodity, and deny it to people who can’t pay,” he laments. “But, from the public health perspective, water is a basic need. If you don’t have water, you’re not going to survive the week. You can’t deny people water.”

The rest of the Detroit Water Brigade hopes that enough people feel the same way, and that the tap will be turned back on to the city’s most vulnerable residents.

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