Residents have protested against water cut-offs in Detroit [Getty Images]
|Water is a basic human right.
Few dispute this. From the Talmud to the Bible to the Quran, from the European Federation of Public Service to the United Nations, societies throughout history have recognised water as a public good. To treat water as a commodity instead of a right is an act of violence. In May 2014, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon argued that “preventing people’s access to safe water is a denial of a fundamental human right.” He added: “Deliberate targeting of civilians and depriving them of essential supplies is a clear breach of international humanitarian and human rights law.”
Water is a right for all human beings. The question is: Who counts as a human being?
Not the poorest residents of Detroit, a US city which has cut off water to citizens at a rate of 3000 people per week since the spring, totalling about 125,000 people at present. Local activists estimate that up to 300,000 people - nearly all poor and African-American – will ultimately lose access to water. The reason for the cut, officials claim, is that residents cannot pay their water bills, which have spiked 120 percent in the last decade.
Detroit is one of the poorest cities in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Detroit is also surrounded by the largest supply of fresh water in the world. The US does not lack for money, and Detroit does not lack for accessible water. What Detroit lacks are people viewed as worthy of the compassion and resources given to their richer, whiter peers. They lack the rights and respect most US citizens take for granted.
At a rally in June, life-long Detroiter Renla Session spoke out for her community: “These are my fellow human beings. If they threatened to cut off water to an animal shelter, you would see thousands of people out here. It’s senseless … They just treat people like their lives mean nothing here in Detroit, and I’m tired of it.”
When rights are considered privileges, only the privileged have rights.
“They treat people like animals in Detroit,” an auto worker complained in July, but the US treats its poorest citizens worse. When the government shut down in late 2013, the food programme for impoverished women and children was suspended - but the animals in the National Zoo stayed fed. More attention was paid to the shutdown of the PandaCam, a livestream of a bear cub, than to the suffering of the US’ poorest citizens.
“In its last day in session, the high court not only affirmed corporate personhood but expanded the human rights of corporations, who by some measures enjoy more protections than mortals – or ‘natural persons’,” wrote Dana Milbank at The Washington Post.
The mortals of Detroit enjoy no such protection. Perhaps that is why the city’s corporate venues - like its high-end golf club, hockey arena, football stadium, and over half of the city’s commercial and industrial users – still have their water running despite owing over $30m, while its most impoverished residents have their water, and their rights, taken away.
In Detroit, corporations are people. Their worth is unquestioned because it is measured in dollars. The worth of the residents of Detroit is measured in utility, and so their utilities are denied.
‘War on poverty’
Human rights may be guaranteed by law, but one’s humanity is never a given. The US was built on the labour of slaves considered three-fifths of a person. Today, one’s relative humanity – and the rights which accompany it – is shaped by race, class, gender, and geography. Citizens may be subject to the same written laws, but they are not equally subject to the same punishments and practices. Water is a litmus test of how much of a “person” you are allowed to be.
For decades, marginalised peoples of the United States have struggled with lack of access to water. Today nearly 40 percent of the 173,000 Navajo, the largest Native American tribe, do not have a tap or a toilet at home.
Appalachia, a historically impoverished region of the US, was the focal point of the 1960s “war on poverty” after its lack of basic public services was publicised.
“This legislation marks the end of an era of partisan cynicism towards human want and misery,” President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed in 1965. “Wherever we have our commitments, whether to the old and the strong or to the young and the weak, we shall match our words with deeds.”
In January 2014, Freedom Industries, a chemical and mining company, dumped a toxic chemical into an Appalachian river, poisoning the water for up to 300,000 residents of West Virginia. Hundreds were hospitalised. Locals were shocked, but not surprised, by the horror that ensued. It was West Virginia’s fifth major industrial accident in eight years.
“Charleston’s nickname is Chemical Valley, and our life expectancy rates reflect this, even in the diaspora,” wrote one West Virginia writer. “Environmental injustice and trauma become part of your veins and cells, enamel and marrow, and it permeates the economies which underpin our existence. I have tried, but you can’t outrun a system.”
When the water crisis hit West Virginia, many were horrified, but others mocked the impoverished state – including a Detroit journalist, unaware her city was next. President Johnson’s war on poverty long ago turned into a war on the poor, and residents of both places have been blamed for their own plight. They elect bad leaders and support corrupt companies, people said of West Virginia. They should have paid their bills, people say of Detroit.
Which leads to the question: so what? Then they should not drink or bathe? They should swallow poison or roam the streets in search of water fountains? Their children, who have no stake in this battle, are supposed to suffer, and their parents are supposed to watch? Is that the lesson we are passing on – that poor children are inherently undeserving of a basic provision in one of the richest countries in the world?
A Third World problem?
US citizens denied clean water often compare their situation with that of distant, disenfranchised lands.
“It’s frightening, because you think this is something that only happens somewhere like Africa,” a mother in Detroit told the LA Times. “It’s like we’re living in a Third World country,” a West Virginian told The New Yorker.
The circumstances differ, but the outcome is the same. Water is a right, and denial of water is a form of social control.
In Ukraine, water and electricity were cut off in certain regions following the Russian incursion. In Syria, multiple political groups manipulated the water supply at different times, leaving roughly one million people without access to clean water or sanitation.
In Gaza, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians lack water, including those living in hospitals and refugee camps. On July 15, citizens of Detroit held a rally in solidarity, holding signs that said “Water for all, from Detroit to Palestine”. A basic resource has become a distant dream, a longing for a transformation of politics aimed at ending suffering instead of extending it.
Water is a legal right ignored in places where law is selectively enforced. To merit the protection of the law one must be acknowledged fully as a human being. What the water crisis shows is who is considered human – and who is considered disposable.
A national survey on water use in the U.S. showed that residents in states that get less precipitation use a lot of water in their homes — western states use an average of 137 gallons per capita every day, compared to 82 gallons in the midwest. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, this is mostly because of the higher amount of landscape irrigation in the west. In other words, people striving for green lawns and lush plants in dry states have to water more often that people in places with lots of rain, or risk fines in some communities.
But it’s the tenacity of two concerned non-Detroit residents that will help the thousands of desperate people in the city who don’t have access to water.
In an effort to collect an estimated $90 million in past-due water bills, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) has shut off the water for more than 15,000 delinquent households, according to the Detroit News, and activists are calling the move a human rights violation.
A bankruptcy judge called on the agency earlier this month to find more effective ways for struggling customers to pay their bills, the news outlet reported. But it was two engaged citizens who found an immediate solution.
Tired of watching Motor City residents suffer — and seeing suspicious fundraising campaigns crop up — entrepreneur Tiffani Ashley Bell and designer Kristy Tillman, founded Turn on Detroit’s Water on Friday.
It launched the same day that throngs of union members, Detroit residents and
activists, including actor Mark Ruffalo, hit the streets of downtown Detroit to protest the controversial water shutoffs.
Turn on Detroit’s Water matches individual customers — not corporations — who owe $250 or less to the DWSD are with donors who will make a payment on their behalf to the agency. Donors can pledge any amount, as little as a few dollars to help ease the burden.
Those who want to help supply an email address and are paired with someone in need of help paying their water bill. The donor won’t know the identity of the recipient, unless the customer chooses to reveal it.
What Tillman and Bell hope to especially impress upon supporters is that many of these cash-strapped customers aren’t entirely to blame.
Water rates have climbed 119 percent in the past decade, and the city council recently approved another 8.7 percent increase, according to TakePart. Due to Detroit’s bankruptcy, residents’ pensions have been reduced while their water bills continue to increase.
Bell, who is based in Oakland, California, and Tillman, who resides in Boston, don’t personally know anyone who has been impacted by the crisis. Still, Tillman told TakePart she felt deeply affected by the situation and wanted to find a direct, grassroots opportunity to enable people to help.
“I just genuinely care about people and have been watching the ongoing situation in Detroit for some time now,” Tillman told TakePart. “I could no longer sit idly by.”
The majority of Americans view education as the key to a lucrative career and a comfortable lifestyle, but the constant indebtedness of student borrowers has become a looming financial crisis, which Washington fears would put a strain on the already shaky economy. In response to such fear, the current Administration is attempting to provide affordable education for all.
But with the rising cost in tuition and student loan interest rate expected to double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on July 1, higher education still remains out of reach for millions of Americans. Instead of making higher education more affordable, it is becoming more expensive for students. The result: adding more to the existing $1 trillion student loan debt, a number that overshadows all household debt except for mortgages.
The most disheartening part about this ordeal is that the federal government is making an enormous amount of profit off millions of struggling students. According to the Congressional Budget Office’s February 2013 Baseline Projections for the Student Loan Program, on every dollar loaned, the government will yield more than 36 cents in profit for 2013. In 2014, it is projected that the government will yield a profit of 12.5 cents per dollar loaned through the Federal subsidized Stafford student loan program; 33.3 cents through the Federal unsubsidized Stafford student loan program; 54.8 cents through loans to graduate student; and 49 cents on parent loans.
The government is expected to make billions of dollars in profit from student loans. According to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass),
This is how empires collapse: one complicit participant at a time.
Before an empire collapses, it first erodes from within. The collapse may appear sudden, but the processes of internal rot hollowed out the resilience, resolve, purpose and vitality of the empire long before its final implosion.
What are these processes of internal rot? Here are a few of the most pervasive and destructive forces of internal corrosion:
1. Each institution within the system loses sight of its original purpose of serving the populace and becomes self-serving. This erosion of common purpose serving the common good is so gradual that participants forget there was a time when the focus wasn’t on gaming the system to avoid work and accountability but serving the common good.
2. The corrupt Status Quo corrupts every individual who works within the system.Once an institution loses its original purpose and becomes self-serving, everyone within either seeks to maximize their own personal share of the swag and minimize their accountability, or they are forced out as a potentially dangerous uncorrupted insider.
The justification is always the same: everybody else is getting away with it, why shouldn’t I? Empires decline one corruptible individual at a time.
3. Self-serving institutions select sociopathic leaders whose skills are not competency or leadership but conning others into believing the institution is functioning optimally when in reality it is faltering/failing.