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US Structural Racism Shapes Access to Water During Covid-19

Detroit, Others Should End Shutoffs for Inability to Pay

The Covid-19 pandemic is underscoring the absurdity of the US refusal to accept its obligations on the human right to water – against which it has repeatedly argued, including at the United Nations.

Activists around the country are highlighting how water crises in their communities are exacerbating the pandemic. We the People of Detroit, an organization committed to community research and the human right to water, released findings last week that in Detroit, more water shutoffs correlated with more Covid-19 cases.

A coalition of civil rights organizations, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) and the ACLU of Michigan, has filed a class action lawsuit in federal court to make water affordable and permanently end water shutoffs in Detroit. Discontinuing water services for inability to pay in any context is incompatible with human rights. It is particularly harmful in the context of the pandemic.

A man carries water for distribution at the Brightmoor Connection Food Pantry in Detroit, Michigan, March 23, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Lawyers in the case say these shutoffs reflect long-existing structural racism in the state. The lawsuit included statistical analyses showing that Black Detroiters are more likely to be impacted by water shutoffs.

The outcry from Detroit is especially poignant because, in 2014, a federal judge in Michigan stated there was “no enforceable right” to water after the city started massive shutoffs of households that couldn’t pay their water bills.

It shouldn’t take a lawsuit to end this practice. Coty Montag, senior counsel for LDF said, “If state and city officials are serious about ending structural racism[…] they can start by putting an end to Detroit’s water shutoff policy today.” While Michigan’s governor has extended an executive order requiring the reconnection of water through the end of the year, there is no long-term solution to water affordability in Michigan and Detroit. Some families, particularly Black Detroiters, have lived for years without water service.

In a recent report by reproductive justice organizations, including In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda, women of color repeatedly say access to clean water is a pressing concern throughout the US. Centuries of racial segregation in housing, infrastructure neglect in neighborhoods with low incomes, and poor water regulation have left communities with water they don’t trust, can’t afford, and that is harming their health.

Now more than ever, ending water shutoffs for inability to pay is a human rights and racial justice imperative.

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