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Detroit's Water Cutoffs: Counterproductive and Coldhearted

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Imagine a week without running water. Imagine not only the physical thirst but also the inability to bathe, to cook, or to clean. Imagine the hardships this scenario would present for a family with children in diapers and the public health risks it would impose on a broader community.

This is the reality right now in Detroit. But we can change it. Today, I am proposing a range of solutions -- including an immediate cessation of shutoffs, special protections for vulnerable groups, and new long-term investments in the water system -- to resolve this crisis.

What makes the current situation particularly troubling is that it is not the result of a real disaster or an underdeveloped water system, but rather the result of a short-sighted business decision.

With its location amidst the Great Lakes and extensive sanitation systems, Detroit should have access to plentiful and inexpensive water. Yet, due to an overzealous and misguided approach to cost-cutting, the local utility has, since March, been cutting off water service for up to 3,000 customers per week. With water rates skyrocketing 119 percent over the past decade, up to 90,000 largely impoverished households are currently in arrears and in danger of termination.

This isn't just bad ethics. It's short-sighted economics.

Water cutoffs are not a pathway to financial solvency. To the contrary, actions that deny residents the ability to cook and clean for themselves and their families create costly long-term challenges related to dysfunction and disease. I'm talking about babies, the sick, and the elderly going without the most essential life-sustaining substance because of a bad business decision. The failure to reinstate water service means unsanitary conditions, malnutrition and disease. Ultimately, it means more people forced to leave the city, further depleting the tax base and worsening the financial position of public entities like water department.

So why are local authorities even attempting these cutoffs? The clearest answer is that they're a prelude to privatization -- a signal to potential investors that the utility is getting tough on those who miss payments. Privatization is a growing trend among water utilities, but a trend that's been demonstrated to increase costs and lower quality. Under many of the "concession contracts" that have become popular in the U.S. and beyond, investors pay an upfront sum to the local government in exchange for the rights to maximize profits by over-charging and under-serving residents. Regardless of the rationale for these cutoffs, the human consequences are unacceptable and unsustainable.

It's time for action. This week, working with local residents and state and federal officials, I am pursuing a range of options to stop the shutoffs and protect Detroiters:

• I am formally requesting that the water department cease all cutoffs, and -- at the absolute least -- immediately cease any threats and cutoffs affecting families with young children, the elderly, pregnant women, the infirmed, and households with a demonstrated inability to pay.

• In a letter to President Obama, I am calling for his administration to make some of the more than $200 million still available for Michigan from the Hardest Hit Fund -- a reserve made available for relief from impacts of the Great Recession -- available for relief from the water crisis.

• I am requesting that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services take steps to formally designate this situation a public health emergency eligible for direct federal relief.

• I am requesting that the Department of Justice conduct a broader investigation into the legality of draconian water shutoffs under the authority of an unelected emergency manager.

• Working with nongovernmental organizations from around the world, I am calling on the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Water and Sanitation to come to Detroit to document the failure to distribute an abundant and essential resource.

These actions are just the beginning. In the 21st Century, in the wealthiest nation on earth, no one should go without safe, clean, public water.