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What's all this about water cut-offs and demonstrations in Detroit?
Heard of the Detroit Water Brigade? (No, they’re not a band). Here’s how the issue of water charges has been affecting the Motor City.

AS YOU MAY have heard, a delegation from US protest group the Detroit Water Brigade will be jetting over to Dublin for the next planned mass rally against water charges, taking place outside the Dáil on 10 December.

Around four activists are coming over — and you can expect to see them popping up in news coverage in the days before the event, as the Right2Water campaign offers media outlets fresh angles on the months-long campaign of opposition to the contentious charging plan.

So, what’s going on in Motor City?

How much are residents being asked to pay, and how are they reacting?

Here’s a quick run-through…


Cash-strapped Detroit became the largest city in the US to file for bankruptcy protection in July.

Recently, its begun disconnecting water services on a large scale for all households who haven’t paid bills for over two months.

That process was accelerated in early June, with around 3,000 customers cut off each week. But since the end of the summer, it’s slowed again.

According to local media reports, over 31,000 customers have had their service disconnected since the start of the year, as the city attempts to reduce its debt.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department targeted residents owing more than €150, or who were more than two months behind in payments, the Detroit News reports.

In August, Mayor Mike Duggan announced a series of new measures to help people meet their bills — including payment plans and cutting reconnection costs.

“Somebody says ‘water should be free’, but I don’t know how to filter water and to pipe it from the river to somebody’s house at no cost,” the Democrat Mayor said, at that announcement (below).

Right now, it is other Detroiters paying for it, with sometimes $15-$20 added to their water bill because they are paying other people’s bills as well.

WXYZ-TV Detroit | Channel 7 / YouTube

International criticism

In October, UN experts condemned authorities in the city for the policy, saying it was was hitting the city’s poorest and most vulnerable.

Special Rapporteurs Catarina de Albuquerque and Leilani Farha said it was “contrary to human rights to disconnect water from people who simply do not have the means to pay their bills”.

Residents, they maintained, were often “forced to make impossible choices — to pay the water bill or to pay their rent”.

Price hikes in water services to cover the costs of leakages from crumbling infrastructure had exacerbated the problem, they said.

“This, combined with the decreased number of customers, and increased unemployment rate, has made water bills increasingly unaffordable to thousands of residents in Detroit living under the poverty line.”

AP / Press Association Images - Leilani Farha and Catarina de Albuquerque AP / Press Association Images - Leilani Farha and Catarina de Albuquerque / Press Association Images - Leilani Farha and Catarina de Albuquerque

The human rights experts gathered testimony from residents as they carried out their research.

Some of it makes for startling reading…

“A woman whose water had been cut explained that her teenage daughters had to wash themselves with a bottle of water during menstruation, and had to refrain from flushing the toilet to save water,” De Albuquerque said

I also listened to numerous stories of fear: mothers who fear losing their children because their water was shut off; heads of households who fear losing access to water without any prior notice; others who fear receiving unaffordable and arbitrary water bills.

Detroit Water Brigade / YouTube

Who are the ‘Water Brigade’? 

Protests over the water issue resulted in multiple arrests back in July.

And since the start of the aggressive disconnection policy, a group of campaigners billing themselves the ‘Detroit Water Brigade’ have been offering direct help to people who’ve had their supply cut off.

They’ve also been campaigning for fairer billing systems.

Renewed focus

The movement (and the issue) in general attracted national attention in the US this week, when it was featured in a ‘Daily Show’ segment.

(By the way, before you watch — it’s worth noting that the Comedy Central show typically conducts lengthy interviews with its segment contributors for these sort of pieces. In this instance, Nolan Finley, the ‘pro-water charges’ journalist was interviewed for 90 minutes.)

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart / YouTube

Irish connections

The ‘Brigade’ campaigners have been in regular contact with Irish grassroots protest groups via social media in recent months — particularly since October, when that first mass rally took place in Dublin city centre.

“In one sense we are united by a common message that water is a human right,” is how a spokesperson for the Right2Water campaign described the common ground between the two movements.

The short Irish sojourn will also be a PR boon to the Motor City activists, of course. They’ll be able to generate some fresh angles for the news media back home by linking their domestic campaign to the Irish movement, which is already generating some international headlines.

Includes reporting from AFP.

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