While the water crisis in Detroit, Michigan isn’t at the top of the mainstream news cycle anymore, the crisis continues to rage for many in the Detroit community. The first session of the Water Affordability Conference, titled “The Water Affordability Crisis”, demonstrated just how raw emotions still are in Detroit. Howard Neukrug, Executive Director of The Water Center at Penn kicked off what turned out to be a very powerful morning session by reminding the audience that, “There is so much more work that the water utility industry needs to do, along with communities, scientists, academicians and everyone else, to get us to the point where our utilities and cities are highly resilient and sustainable for the future. We are not there.” One of the essential steps to getting there, and the goal of the conference, is to come together to better understand what is needed to solve one of the most urgent US water problems, water affordability.
The discussion panel was moderated by Jessica Loya, National Policy Director for Green Latinos, and included Mustafa Ali, Senior VP of Climate, Environmental Justice and Community Revitalization at the Hip Hop Caucus, Professor Emily Kutil, Founding Member of We The People of Detroit and Jerome Shabazz, Executive Director of the Overbrook Environmental EducationCenter in Philadelphia.
Mustafa Ali began the panel discussion with a startling statistic. Fourteen million families in the US are unable to pay for water. This inability to pay for water is not just an economic issue. Lack of affordable water degrades communities because of its cascading impacts that create a negative downward spiral that is difficult to stop. Emily Kutil provided an illustration of this spiral from Detroit where lack of affordable water creates water shut off, resulting in less hygienic living conditions and a 155% increase in skin, soft tissue and gastrointestinal infections which leads to more emergency room visits versus the general population.
Members of the conference audience from Detroit provided emotional descriptions of how in Detroit, unpaid water bills are attached as tax leans to homes and can cause already struggling households to lose their homes to foreclosure. In addition, to get clean water for basic living needs, residents must pay for expensive bottled water, which puts the household under further financial hardship and stress. Co-Founder of We The People Of Detroit, Cecily McClellan put it simply, “We can live without many things. But we can’t live without water.”
Jerome Shabazz discussed how water is often viewed by city and or utility officials from a financial perspective, when in reality, water is a human centric issue that is closely tied to human dignity. He described water as a linchpin of communities and stressed the need for all stakeholders including utilities, local government, academia and community representatives to have open and frequent discussions that form the basis of public policy. Mustafa Ali called for greater civic participation and “authentic collaborative partnerships” where communities inform and influence the process of setting policy at the state and local levels. The panel was in agreement that communities need to be educated about the complexity of water affordability issues and elected officials must be held accountable. Emily Kutil noted that when it comes to water, “ infrastructure is political as well as physical.”
This powerful session, through both panel and audience member participation, helped everyone in attendance better understand water affordability issues on the intellectual level, but perhaps more importantly, feel the devastating impacts of the water affordability crisis on a much deeper, emotional level.