Obama Administration Urged to Declare Public Health Emergency in Detroit

Social justice organizations demand economic relief for affected residents 

WASHINGTON – Today, a coalition of over fifty social justice organizations including Food & Water Watch urged President Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell to declare the ongoing water crisis in Detroit a public health emergency. The groups have asked the Obama administration to make money available from the Public Health Emergency Fund to restore water service to residents affected by the shutoffs.

“Thousands of Detroit families do not have running water in their homes for drinking, hygiene and sanitation,” said Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter. “This is a growing public health crisis that the Obama administration has the power to stop. It is completely unconscionable that anyone would be forced to endure these conditions.”

In March, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, under the direction of state-appointed Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, announced an aggressive campaign to disconnect the water service of thousands of households that are either $150 or 60 days behind on their water bills. In Detroit, 38.1 percent of residents, including more than half of children there, live in poverty. Over the last decade, residential water charges have more than doubled.

By mid-July, the department had disconnected the water service of some 17,000 households, affecting more than 46,000 people. Only about 55 percent of households are reconnected within 24 hours. On July 21, following large protests, widespread media scrutiny and a lawsuit challenging the shutoffs, the water department announced a 15-day suspension on new service disconnections. During this period, however, the department continued to disconnect customers. Upon the expiration of the limited respite, which was extended for an additional 10 days, the department will again shut off water service to as many as 3,000 households a week. About 90,000 customers are at risk of losing water service.

Maude Barlow, national chairwoman of the Council of Canadians, a social advocacy group, has already petitioned the United Nations to step in. According to Barlow, “Taking tap water away from people who cannot afford it is not only a public health emergency but also a blatant human rights violation. We cannot stand by while countries abdicate their responsibility to protect our most vulnerable populations.”

“Mayor Duggan’s 10 Point Plan falls short of addressing the crisis at hand. The People’s Water Board Coalition stands firm on its demand that Governor Snyder, Emergency Manager Orr and Mayor Duggan turn the water back on and extend the moratorium on shutoffs indefinitely,” added Tawana Petty, an activist with the People’s Water Board Coalition. “We also ask that Detroit’s leaders enforce the People’s Water Affordability plan and abandon all plans to privatize Detroit’s water.”

View the letter here: http://documents.foodandwaterwatch.org/doc/Detroit-Signon-Public_Health_Emergency-2014-08-15.pdf

Some water privatization experts, including Hauter, believe that the water shutoffs in Detroit are a precursor to leasing or selling the city’s water system to a private entity. But relinquishing public control of Detroit’s water system is likely to exacerbate current access and affordability issues. “Around the world, we’ve seen myriad problems linked to privatizing water systems,” said Hauter. “Under a private provider, Detroit is likely to experience degraded service, reductions in the water system’s workforce and higher bills. It is not the answer to Detroit, or any city’s, water woes.”


Food & Water Watch is a nonprofit consumer organization that works to ensure clean water and safe food. We challenge the corporate control and abuse of our food and water resources by empowering people to take action and by transforming the public consciousness about what we eat and drink.