Is Detroit tap water healthy to drink
Shame. Valerie Blakely associates this feeling with water. Because water is something the Detroit woman cannot afford. It stands next to the so-called "blue line of shame". The blue line above the water tap in her front yard in Detroit's Northend indicates that the water in her home should be turned off. The 42-year-old has not paid her bills. She doesn't want to accept that something like this is possible in one of the 50 largest cities in the United States.
It's early in the morning. It's quiet in Blakely's street. All you can hear from her house are the calls of the four children who wake up and Blakely is about to drive them to school. The mother lives in an area where about every second house is empty and the gardens are overgrown. Blakely moved here in 2008 after she and her husband couldn't pay their mortgage in the house on the outskirts. The factory where her husband worked was closed, he lost his job, and then the bank threw them out. A typical story in Detroit.
It's been four years since Valerie Blakely's fight for water began. It all started when Detroit went bankrupt in 2013 and was taken over by a bankruptcy administrator. The city's elected politicians had no say when the emergency manager outsourced the waterworks. The company no longer belongs to the municipality, but to the regional utility Great Lakes Water Authority - and they take tough action against people who do not pay their bills: If you are two months behind with payments or owe more than $ 150, it will Water turned off.
That also applies to the Blakelys. In the winter of 2013 the water pipes broke in her house. With the unexpected repair costs, they no longer manage to pay the bills. At the beginning of 2014, they had $ 1,200 in water debt - a lot of money for a couple with five children that even health insurance couldn't afford. Valerie is unemployed, her husband works by the hour as a mechanic. But they're not the only ones having problems. In 2014, the cost of unpaid water bills in Detroit was $ 89 million. Blue lines glow above the water connections in Blakelys Straße.
One February morning, Valerie Blakely is drinking her coffee and looking out the window when she sees a man fiddling with the water supply in the garden. Blakely runs out of the house and stands on the blue line. "You won't turn off the water for me today!" She says firmly. The man turns and walks across the street. He turns off the water at Valerie's neighbor. Then he goes on from house to house. Blakely writes a post on Facebook asking for help for the neighborhood. People bring hundreds of liters of water into canisters within an hour.
For the next two weeks, Blakely is the only one with a water connection. Her neighbors come to her when they want to cook, wash or clean the house. You have to decide what to use the little water for. The 86-year-old Ms. Smith next door barely manages to carry the heavy canisters into her house. When Blakely talks about it, the tears are back. The year 2014, the many demonstrations and gatherings made her an activist. Today she is a member of the citizens' organization "We the people of Detroit".
3000 houses are cut off from the water within a week, and entire neighborhoods lose their water. Between the beginning of 2014 and the end of 2017, a total of more than 100,000 households will be affected. Even the UN intervened and found that denying access to water would violate current human rights conventions.
Detroit isn't the only city in the U.S. where people can't pay their water bills. Since 2010 the prices for water have risen continuously. 14 million households in the US can no longer afford water, according to a report by Michigan State University. There is no law that guarantees them a water supply. And the crisis is likely to worsen: The researchers reckon that water prices will have to rise by 41 percent over the next four years to cover the repair costs for ailing infrastructure. According to these calculations, around a third of all US households would no longer be able to pay for their water connection by 2020. The NGO Circle of Blue has examined the changes in water prices in 30 US cities over the past seven years and found dramatic differences. In 2015, a four-person household in Fresno, California, paid $ 40 a month in Atlanta, Georgia, for a water connection.
Not a permanent solution
In some cities there are considerations to adjust water costs to income. Detroit's Water and Sewage Department has for the first time developed a financing plan that allows households to pay off their debts with the support of a fund. Once they get a blue mark, they have around ten days to look into financing. Then the water is turned off.
The financing plan is not a permanent solution to the problem, says Peter Hammer, law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. He advises the civic organization "We the people of Detroit" and heads the center for civil rights at his university. "The cost of water is simply too high for many Detroiters," explains Hammer. Because many paid not only for themselves, but also for the vacant houses next door, if the water was not turned off there, pipes break and water leaks. "If you should only be paying around $ 75, you can get to $ 200 a month."
"The city has contributed to its own decline."
Hammer is therefore working with his colleagues to ensure that a payment plan is drawn up for the poor population, according to which no one should spend more than two or three percent of their income on water. With an income of $ 26,325, the annual average in Detroit, that would be about $ 526. By comparison, a household in Detroit currently pays an average of $ 848 a year. For Hammer the math is simple: "When critics say: 'They just don't want to pay their bill', then I answer: 'It's poverty, stupid! That's something that many don't understand."
A poverty that, according to Hammer, the city is not innocent of, because regionalization primarily helps the suburbs, while the city still cannot afford repair costs for ailing infrastructure. "The city has contributed to its own decline with its water system," says Peter Hammer. "The water of Detroit made the 'white flight' possible in the first place," says Hammer, explaining Detroit's historical decline: the flight of whites into the suburbs. Because Detroit also supplied the suburbs with water, the white population was able to build new buildings there. The result: 80 percent of the city's population is black, the whites live in the suburbs. Forty percent of the people in Detroit live below the poverty line. Taxes are paid above all beyond the "8 mile", the separation between city and suburbs - and are missing in the impoverished city. "Water and race," says Hammer, "are related in Detroit."
Valerie Blakely turns her back on the blue line in her garden and goes back to her house. She has to make sure that the children finish on time. Showering, brushing your teeth. It is still possible without any problems. Since the Detroit water crisis in 2014, water has no longer been turned off for entire neighborhoods at once. In 2017, around 17,000 households were nevertheless affected. Blakely knows that when "the water people" come, they mean business: "Today they come with armed security if they turn off the water for you." This time she won't just be able to stand on her entrance.
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