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This text is by Alyson Jones in her capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the author's employer and/or other author affiliations.  

Thinking about the Struggle for Clean and Affordable Water

Alyson Jones


When you see water in a stream 
you say: oh, this is stream
When you see water in the river 
you say: oh, this is
of the river; 
When you see ocean 
you say: This
is the ocean's 
But actually water is always 
only itself
and does not belong 
to any of these containers 
though it
creates them. 
And so it is with you.
“When You See Water” (2011) by Alice Walker

The poet Alice Walker reminds us that water has its own purpose and identity beyond the many places we find it.  Water is a natural resource that sustains all life on Earth.  One argument comes from the idea that market forces should allocate natural resources.  Therefore, proponents of this view consider privatization as the optimal solution.  The political Right, for example, argues that government is not an effective manager of natural resources.  On the other side of the political spectrum, water is considered a human right and should be held and protected in the public trust for the people and the planet.  I agree with citizens and organizations that maintain that water should be a basic human right and that everyone should have access to clean and affordable water.

figure 1
Charity Hicks
Charity Mahouna Hicks

Denise Hart, of the organization Save our Groundwater New Hampshire, asks us to think like water.  I was drawn to this idea because I delight in teaching thinking skills to children.  I wanted to know more about what it means to think like water.  Maude Barlow, author of Blue Future recalls a conversation with Denise Hart.  Hart told her that to think like water means:

When I say this, I think of how water confronts obstacles to its path – it never gives up, but instead goes around, pushes over, changes course, all the while continuing on its way. To think like water is a wonderful challenge however, my time may be better spent on thinking deeply about the issue around access to water in Detroit.1

Detroit water rights activist, Charity Hicks (fig. 1), opened my eyes.2  Maude Barlow captures Charity’s passion and voice in Blue Future: Protecting Water for People and the Planet Forever (The New Press: New York, NY. 2013).  During a speaking engagement in Detroit, Barlow mentioned that Hicks knew the importance of water and she applauded her full engagement in the struggle for access to water. Charity worked to ensure that Detroit water remains in the public trust, free from privatization.  Barlow referred to Charity’s conversation with writer Alexa Bradley in which she argues that government authorities need citizens to put pressure on their elected representatives in order to deal with the human and ecological implications of water management.3  Public pressure, as Hicks acknowledges, is critical for the equitable distribution of water in cities and other municipalities.

The Detroit newspapers have published many stories about water shut-offs and citizen protests against these arbitrary practices.  Shea Howell, who is special to The Michigan Citizen newspaper, wrote that Attorney Alice Jennings moved to file a lawsuit on behalf of people who have experienced water shut-offs.4  Jennings argued that the aggressive shut-offs helped Detroit’s Emergency Manger, Kevyn Orr attract a private company to the city to buy or to operate the city’s water system.  Charity Hicks, like other activists and citizens, argued that Detroit’s water system should remain a public utility rather than be entrusted to private enterprise.  Barlow reported that 15% of the American population receives water delivered by a for-profit company.  In Michigan, Detroit supplies water to 40% of those in the state who use water.  If Detroit’s Emergency Manager sells the utility or turns over management of the utility to a private company, then a private company will be responsible for supplying water to 40% of the statewide market.5  This problem does not simply affect Detroit but a significant population of the state.

Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes received a class action complaint filed on behalf of Detroit residents as well as organizations.  The goal of this legal action is to pressure the Detroit Water Board to implement the 2005 People’s Water Affordability Plan. This plan was developed by Massachusetts consultant firm Fisher, Sheehart and Colton and approved by the Detroit City Council and by the Detroit Mayor in 2006.  The Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) have delayed implementation of the plan. The plan does not stop shut-offs but supports vulnerable residents by making their water bill affordable.  The proposed cost to individual residents is one dollar.  Commercial residents pay twenty dollars and Municipalities pay two hundred and seventy five dollars.  While this plan provided a means of dealing with water emergencies, it was never implemented.

figures 2 & 3
water is a human right demonstration
water is a human right demonstration
water is a human right demonstrations

Water is important to human sustainability.  Detroit is part of the Great Lakes Basin where there is an abundance of fresh water.  The city is not running out of water like many other places.  The struggle is for access to clean, affordable water.  Water should not be taken out of public trust.  It is one basic need that all people have in common.  Those who are protesting on behalf of Detroit residents, those who are speaking and acting on behalf of those affected and organizations like the United Nations panel that are speaking from afar about human rights for Detroiters find common cause in the human right for water.  In a sense, these groups are thinking like water.  They understand that water flows irrespective of political boundaries.  According to Charity Hicks, the fight for clean and affordable water in Detroit does not quit, but changes course all while making a way to achieve people-centered local government control of water.

1 Maude Barlow, Blue Future: Protecting water for people and the planet forever. Toronto, Canada: House of Anasi Press. 2013: pp. 189-190

2 Sadly, we lost Charity Hicks to an accident this year. To learn more see “Charity Mahouna Hicks Joins the Ancestors,” The Michigan Citizen, accessed July 28, 2014, http://michigancitizen.com/charity-mahouna-hicks-joins-the-ancestors

3 Barlow. Blue Future: p. 132-133

4 Shea Howell, “Shut off Pause,” and Curt Gueyette, “Water Reprieve, but no Resolution”. The Michigan Citizen. numbers 36 and 38. July 27- August 2 2014

5 Dolan, Matthew. “Water Shutoffs Spur Protests in Detroit”. MarketWatch. July 19, 2014. accessed 27 July 27 2014. http://www.marketwatch.com/story/water-cutoffs-spur-protest-in-detroit-2014-07-19.

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link - issue 9: September 2014