January 21st, 2019
Thinking for Ourselves
In the midst of the latest boil water advisory, a group of scholars and community activists released a long awaited report on Water Equity and Security in Detroit’s Water and Sewer District. The report is a thoughtful, well researched, and historically grounded analysis of the current crisis of water insecurity. It is an important contribution to our conversations about water security in the region and the country. It is a joint publication of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley, MOSES, and Praxia Partners, and was funded by the Kresge Foundation.
Central to the thinking of the report is a vision of our obligations to one another and to the earth on which we depend for life. The authors argue that the goal of public policy should be the creation of “structural, systemic, and institutional arrangements that ensure everyone has consistent access to drinking water and wastewater services.” They provide a framework for us to rethink regional relationships and the central role the city of Detroit could play in setting a model for the country in guaranteeing water security. This rethinking could be a way “to promote regional coordination and alignment to ensure water security for everyone in the region and maximize the system’s ability to lift up regional economic and public health.”
Water security is about more than spending money. It requires the political will and compassionate leadership to “address deeper social cleavages around race and poverty.”
Citing the importance of grassroots organizations that have been developing innovative solutions, the report asserts that Detroit could “be an example of how to ensure water security across the region and design practicable urgent adaptation to climate change. It can be an example of practical adaptation that also raises the level of public health and environmental quality. It can also provide a model of how to provide benefits to everyone and can be best and most fairly accomplished by designing strategies to help places and people who most urgently need relief from structural, systemic, and institutional barriers. The regional context of the DWSD system and its environmental and public health impacts are exceptionally well suited to see how ‘we all live downstream’ and stand to benefit or be harmed by the way our neighbors fare.“
The welfare of our neighbors should be our most common concern, the report argues. It recommends a moratorium on water shutoffs and the development of a serious water affordability plan. The report invites current leaders to reconsider how race, class, and business interests have distorted their thinking. The authors explain that for many people “Consistent and secure access to clean water that runs in your home is taken for granted.” As a result, many of our suburban neighbors and political leaders “rationalize and argue there is a need for residential water shutoffs there is a sense that shut offs are routine ordinary practice and that incentivizing bill collection is not a crisis—that the crisis is that system revenues have been too low in recent decades. “
In sharp contrast to this, people who experience water shut offs or advocate for them know we are in a crisis. The authors explain, “When adults or children are facing these challenges in their day-to-day lives they realize that it’s not normal and that a vast majority of people do not face these struggles. These are the material conditions of being othered and structurally marginalized. The relief of getting access to water and sewer systems can be a force for structural belonging and inclusion.”
The report documents two very different visions for our future. The authors warn, “Choosing not to respond to the pressing inequities at hand only passively enables the continuation of today’s system, which, if left unchecked, will likely worsen existing problems: increasing water and sewerage bills, contaminated water, and failing infrastructure accessibility and correspondingly, poverty and insecurity.”
The report invites us to “envision a different path forward for Detroit and the region—one where vital resources are fairly distributed, where the region’s residents can enjoy a dignified life in health communities, and where lasting economic and social equality is fostered and nurtured.” Reading and sharing this report are important step toward securing that better future.
Julia Putnam and Tim Wise discussed ways to resist oppressive systems, the misremembering of American history, and how education can help unravel injustice during their Keynote Memorial Lecture for U-M’s 33rd annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium. See the video here.