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  • Writer's pictureYouth Energy Squad

Contextualizing the Coronavirus Pandemic in the History of Water in Detroit

Context: In Michigan and Detroit especially, the Coronavirus pandemic has shed new light on the issue of water access and water shutoffs in households. Public health experts have highlighted the importance of washing hands with soap and water in order to kill the virus and avoid becoming ill. However, many households and community organizers questioned how the City and other policymakers could expect individuals to follow orders to remain at homes that do not have the water needed to effectively kill the virus.

Before the pandemic, water access had already been a hot-button issue in Detroit for decades. During the summer of 2016, the Detroit Water and Sewage Department started a campaign of water shutoffs, turning off the water to households behind on their bills. 28,000 households were targeted for shutoffs. The Department planned to shut off about 800 households a week.


Goals: Age Group: High School

  • Critical Thinking

  • Decision Making

  • Learning Detroit History

Supplies: Time:1 hour

  • Internet access is helpful



The following are 4 sets of competing statements about those 2016 shutoffs. Read each statement carefully and then decide which statement you agree with most and explain your response. Then watch the linked video below those questions and share your opinion on questions 5 and 6 about the current pandemic.


1)“At the end of the day, everybody's gotta pay their water bill," said Alexis Wiley, chief of staff for the mayor, Mike Duggan. "People in Detroit are paying higher rates because there are so many people who aren't paying," she said.


Detroit resident Rochelle McCaskill gets a $672 monthly disability check and spends $600 on rent, she said, leaving her unable to pay the city’s water bills. She suffers from MRSA, a contagious infection that is a serious public health concern and requires frequent bathing. She says, “They need a category for those of us who cannot pay.” Her water was shut off that summer.

Which viewpoint do you side most closely with? Why?

2)“Disconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights,” United Nations (international peace-keeping organization with 193 member countries) officials wrote. They recommended new policies be adopted to ensure that everyone gets access to the necessary amount of water for consumption and sanitation, about 26 gallons per day.


Sheila Cockrel, former Detroit City Council woman said, “People can go down to the river and pick up a bucket of water. That’s your right.”

Which viewpoint do you side most closely with? Why?

3)The water shutoffs seem to affect almost exclusively black Americans living in low-income housing. U.N. official Ms. Farha says, "The denial of access to a sufficient quantity of water ... (threatens) the right [to not] be discriminated against... The water shutoffs are having a "disproportionate impact on low-income African Americans in Detroit."


If you don't pay your water bill the company can and should turn you off, no matter who you are or your racial background. Which viewpoint do you side most closely with? Why?

4)If water supply is a commodity - a product that can be bought or sold - the answer is simple though harsh -- pay up or go without. (From water economist Daniel J. Van Abs,


If water is a public service, then service should be guaranteed. The costs could be handled like many other public services (such as police or courts), through the property tax, with local governments paying the water utility to provide the service. (Van Abs)

Which viewpoint do you side most closely with? Why?

Please watch the following video from Democracy Now about the current state of water shutoffs in Detroit during the pandemic and respond to the questions below:

5. Does the Coronavirus pandemic change your responses to the earlier statements at all?

6. Should the Coronavirus pandemic change how policymakers handle water shut offs in Detroit households? If so, how?


Potential responses to questions 1-4 include…

1A: Rules are rules/the law is the law. It’s not fair to make other people’s water bills go up. The water department couldn’t do what it does if people just stop paying for water. People could afford their water bills if they stopped buying other things they don’t need.

1B: Everyone needs water and they should get it no matter what. If people could pay their water bills then they would. People have all kinds of different situations that are not their fault. The department should work with them more to find more creative/fair solutions.

2A: Rights are supposed to be equal. It is not enough to simply have access to water - you should have as much access to water as others do and the water you have access to should be just as safe as it is for others. Water from a river is not safe until it has been treated and cleaned properly.

2B: If people really can’t pay their water bill, they can always just go get water from a number of different places. This is fair because they still get water and they don’t make bills more expensive for other people.

3A: White people with unpaid water bills get to keep their water longer than other people with unpaid water bills do. Discrimination and other factors tend to give white people more economic opportunities and wealth, so it’s discrimination even if the standard for shutting off water is the same across the board.

3B: If you don’t pay, you don’t get water. That’s fair and there’s nothing discriminatory about that.

4A: Everything can be bought and sold. Water shouldn’t be special. You have to pay for clothes, food, games, etc. If you want something, you have to pay for it. That’s life.

4B: We have a right to water just like we have a right to voting. You don’t have to pay for your right to vote so you shouldn’t have to pay for your water. Other human needs like food and clothes should be accessible too. There is nothing more valuable or important than life. You should get water no matter what.

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