Sorry, Detroit, No Water For You

Since August 2014, the city of Detroit has been cutting off water supply to residents and businesses in an effort to collect outstanding payments to the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD). The events sparked protest, outrage, and disbelief from locals, while U.N. experts declared some of the water shut-offs as violations of basic human rights.

In an interview with Democracy Now, Alice Jennings, a lawyer fighting to end the city’s water shut-off campaign, called the events a “humanitarian crisis.” A bankruptcy judge ruled that the Water Department was justified in this strategy to collect the owed revenue; activists have been quick to comment.

If an individual is unable or incapable of making water payments, is it justified to deny them this essential element to their well-being?

T-shirts and banners read, “water is a human right” during the protest in Detroit. Surely a government cannot deny people access to water. However, that is not really what is in question in the case of Detroit. It is the harvest, processing, and delivery of water to one’s home that is being demanded as a right.

It is the harvest, processing, and delivery of water to one’s home that is being demanded as a right.
Brett Meador, IVN Independent Author
John Locke’s theory of “positive rights” versus “negative rights” can help to frame this debate. Positive rights require human intervention and enforcement in order to be satisfied. Negative rights are those that exist naturally and can only be protected or negated by human action – e.g. freedom of speech or association.

Since infrastructure must be built and remain effective in order to deliver water, it cannot exist without human action, which makes it a positive right.

Tibor R. Machan writes in The Freeman that “positive rights trump freedom” because one person’s liberty must be disregarded in order to fulfill the positive right of another individual. This right being demanded by many Detroit residents sets a poor precedent for a proclaimed free society.

Although the argument for free water is incompatible with liberty, it is an understandable reaction to the dismal events that have plagued the city. Residents experienced somewhere around 33,000 water shut-offs in 2014 — nothing short of a humanitarian crisis.

These residents are victim to the incompetence of Detroit’s public institutions. The DWSD accumulated a $5.7 billion debt at the start of its controversial shut-off campaign. One of the contributing factors to this debt was the long-established precedent that water dues were not collected; individuals grew accustomed to paying their bills only in part or not at all.

By making no effort to collect bills, the DWSD created an incentive of non-payment. How can blame be placed on residents that were simply behaving logically to the incentives given to them? This culture of non-payment on both residential and commercial accounts combined with massive infrastructure in a depopulating city have led to an average residential water bill of $65/month, which is around 50 percent higher than the national average.

Following Detroit’s bankruptcy, the incentives for water consumers changed suddenly and with little warning. Citizens that had fallen on hard times were indiscriminately shut-off. along with the large volume of households that had chosen not to pay.

The evidence suggests that many residents, were in fact, able to pay. DWSD spokeswoman explained that about half of accounts that faced shut-offs paid in full within two days. Additionally, 85 percent of accounts had given at least partial payments in those same two days. The average residential unpaid bill was $540, which translates to about 8 months of non-payment.

How can blame be placed on residents that were simply behaving logically to the incentives given to them?
Shutting off utilities is a last resort for providers and Detroit seems to have initiated it with little preceding notice to consumers. A $5.6 million two-year contract with Homrich Wrecking was signed to perform the “shut-off/turn-on project” with little effort to carry out alternative plans first.

This leaves many wondering why a more aggressive warning campaign was not pursued for bringing unpaid accounts into compliance. Some residents say that no warning was given before the shut-off in their home.

Instead of first reaching for the pen, it seems that DWSD grabbed the hammer. One hopes that the strong-armed approach was not a form of rebellion against the governor-appointed former city emergency manager, Kevyn Orr.

Detroit, a once great symbol of prosperity, now houses 38 percent of residents living below the poverty line. The city struggles to reconcile with decades of reckless spending and irresponsible institutions like the DWSD.

Meanwhile, the impoverished populations will suffer the greatest. The water crisis is a symptom of the controlling city government that has failed to reasonably supply the basic needs of the people.

Following bankruptcy, Detroit has a second chance. This time around, it is crucial that the city and its residents create properly-managed institutions and give up on bloated government-managed departments.