Detroit Citizens Rise Up to Stop Massive Water Shutoffs and Restore Service

Posted Aug. 13, 2014

MP3 Interview with Tom Stephens, an activist with the group Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


Over the past few months, a water crisis has erupted in the bankrupt city of Detroit. It's not a crisis of water contamination, as has happened in Toledo, Ohio and other American cities this year, but one of water shutoffs for thousands of customers unable to pay their water bills. The shutoffs have been called a human rights violation by the United Nations. While some families have been able to get their water turned back on, the crisis continues for thousands of others. Critics charge that the water shutoff is part of the bankrupt city’s restructuring plan, and is leading toward privatizing Detroit's Water and Sewerage Department.

Detroit activists are now campaigning for a moratorium on all future water shutoffs, restoration of service to all those households that no longer have water and full implementation of a water affordability plan that was first proposed in 2005. That plan calls for a rate discount based on income, water conservation measures, consumer protections and collections initiatives directed toward customers having the ability to pay.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Tom Stephens, a lifelong Detroit area resident, an attorney, and one of the coordinators of the communications working group with Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management – which collaborates with another activist group, the People's Water Board. Here, Stephens talks about the impact of the water shutoffs on Detroit families and how residents are organizing to resist privatization of the city's water utility.

TOM STEPHENS: Here we are in the greatest concentration of fresh water on the planet, you know, we're not in drought-stricken California, we're not in Mesopotamia, we're not stuck in the desert somewhere. If there's any place you can provide water on an equitable basis as needed so that people aren't – whatever their other issues are – suffering from lack of the necessities of life in terms of water, it's here. Then reality intrudes, right? That's the environmental context and the geographical context, and then you have emergency management in Michigan and in Detroit. And yes, the New York Times and others have correctly focused on this as a national and perhaps even global precedent-setting way to deal with the ills of 21st century industrial society. So what's happened here is that it's part of the restructuring, and the bankruptcy, and the imposed austerity measures that are being put on the people of Detroit by Michigan's governor, Rick Snyder, through his unprecedented emergency management policy. The powers that be, in their wisdom, in the spring – because they want to regionalize and privatize the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department – which is a regional water and sewerage service for four million people throughout southeastern Michigan. Because they wanted to work this kind of a deal, they figured, you know it would be good to cut off these scofflaws and deadbeats and all these other names they call them to dehumanize them. So they paid a contractor to start going out and cutting off families at a rate of about 3,000 a week, and that's what precipitated the crisis.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I read a statement from a human rights official who said cutting off people's water because they can't afford to pay, as opposed to because customers are unwilling to pay, is a human rights violation. Is that what people are organizing around who are opposed to the shutoffs?

TOM STEPHENS: Yes. The United Nations General Assembly, in 2010, I believe it was, adopted an international convention on water and sanitation as a human right, and that's what people are referring to. To the extent that the shutting off of people to access to water is based on their inability to afford the cost, that draconian policy is a violation of international human rights. There was a complaint that was filed by the People's Water Board, the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, the Blue Planet Project and Food and Water Watch with the UN in early June and within about three weeks, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights had a letter that was affirming that three human rights experts said yes, if that's what's happening, that's a violation of human rights.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Did that play a role in getting the water turned on for some households? Or did those people pay their bills?

TOM STEPHENS: It's been a mixture of things, mostly it's because they paid ... first of all, the crisis is by no means over. The city is just scrambling around to try to cover itself. But there have been some instances where recognizing how badly this was all going, where people could demonstrate hardship, for example – disability, emergency medical needs – where they have turned on water in a few instances as I understand it. The vast majority have been where people have found the money somewhere to pay some of it. The department has changed its policy so as of last week, they are now demanding only ten percent of the outstanding bill to turn it back on. None of this, of course, solves the underlying problem, and it's not just a problem in Detroit; it's a problem in every community where there's aging infrastructure for water, which is every community, and especially where there's low income – is how do you pay for this essential service and infrastructure for our lives? And the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, back in 2005, with the help of an expert named Roger Colton, had proposed a water affordability plan that would be a fee structure and rate structure based on ability to pay that would charge those who could pay more and charge those that can pay less what they can afford to pay, so that people aren't paying these astronomical percentages of their income. You know, some of the reports we've seen recently got people paying over 25 percent of their income for water. That's just not sustainable.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Tom Stephens, according to one article I read, one of the reasons behind shutting off people's water was just to get them to leave.

TOM STEPHENS: As part of the restructuring there is a thing called the Detroit Future City Plan, which is basically what they used to call "Negro Removal," to satirize the term urban renewal, on a huge scale, and yes, the idea, that hey, we can shut people's water off, if they haven't paid their bill you can put it on their taxes and you can take away their homes. Yes, this is a huge way to leverage the removal of people they find to be undesirable and get them out of the way. Detroit is 139 square miles of very cheap real estate in a water-blessed place on the planet, and it is the busiest international border crossing in North America. It's a tremendous economic prize if you could just get some of these people out of here, you know, take over the resources, and take over control of the place, and that's what they're doing, and that's what this is part of.

BETWEEN THE LINES: It sounds like some people's plans for New Orleans after Katrina.

TOM STEPHENS: Very much. New Orleans is even something they use as a model, they're so bold about it, to describe what they're doing.

BETWEEN THE LINES: In many parts of the country, people's water bills are still quite low – much lower, say, than their cable bills.

TOM STEPHENS: Nationally, what the industry says water is by far the most underpriced retail utility that you have, people pay less for water than for almost anything else, and it's a big problem because much of the infrastructure was built in the 19th century and it really needs maintenance. And the other thing about that that's so painful, especially when you look at Detroit's bankruptcy, is if we were putting resources into that, we'd have enough work to keep people at work for generations. But that's not our priority.

For more information on Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management, visit and The Detroit People’s Water Board at

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