COVID-19 is forcing cities to rethink water access.

Gospel music filled the room inside a midcentury church on Detroit’s west side on a bleak February morning. But people didn’t come here for worship. They came for water. The former sanctuary is now Brightmoor Connection Food Pantry, a food distribution center that also doubles as a de facto water station. Located in Brightmoor, a Black community, it’s where scores of women have, for years, come daily for cases of bottled water.

Brightmoor is one of the neighborhoods hardest hit by the city’s decision to shut off water to some 140,000 residents who can no longer pay their utilities. The mass shutoffs began in 2014 but paused at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Unprecedented in modern American history, the shutoffs put families at risk of dehydration, contagious diseases, and water-borne illness.

The Rev. Roslyn Bouier, the pantry’s director, greets each person individually as they arrive. Bouier feels it is her duty to provide water if the city won’t.

“It’s about dignity,” she said, before welcoming the next person in line.

One of the women who relies on this pantry is Akiva, a young single mother with hazel eyes and waist-length braids who asked that her last name be withheld to protect her family’s privacy. One day in October 2019, she woke up to get her daughter ready for school, and her faucet ran dry. For an entire brutal Midwestern winter, Akiva and her young daughter and son lived without running water.

She took things day by day, but her daughter’s desperation got to her.

“My baby girl used to always ask me,” Akiva recalled. “’Mommy, are we ever going to get a new house? Is this always going to be this way?’”

Her frustration grew into depression, which she hid from friends and family except for her grandmother, whom she credits as a source of strength.

Determined to improve her situation, Akiva found part-time work as an assistant to a hairdresser, shampooing and braiding hair. Now with pandemic closures and quarantines, part-time work is all but gone. But the bills keep coming.

When she was able to procure water, there was the problem of prioritization: Would her family drink it, bathe with it, or cook with it?

For years, Detroit’s city government cut water to thousands of homes, pressuring residents to pay past-due water bills. The hardest hit have been Black households, where 60 percent of homes with children under the age of 18 are run by single Black women.

Weeks into the pandemic, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan reluctantly suspended the controversial water shutoffs and offered a temporary discounted water rate. But it hasn’t been simple to turn the water back on. As the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department began to restore service to homes whose water had been shut off for months, and in many cases, years, the city ran into an unexpected cascade of overdue repairs for meters that froze during the winter, leaky plumbing heads, and sewage in the basements.

On Dec. 8, Duggan, who is now running for reelection, extended the moratorium through 2022 (though that does not mean there will be amnesty for payments). A permanent fix is still out of reach. Recently, Rep. Rashida Tlaib wrote a letter asking the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to protect people from water shutoffs nationwide. Some advocates and lawmakers are calling for water access to be recognized as an essential need.

The city’s government has been resisting this realization for years. When the shutoffs began, media reports insisted that people were being irresponsible and deserved the shutoffs for not paying their bills. But the bills themselves are unaffordable. According to a 2018 University of Michigan study, Detroit residents reported paying 10 percent of their income in water bills on average—more than double the Environmental Protection Agency’s estimate of an affordable rate. Most households said they were making trade-offs to pay their bills, switching between paying for electricity and water. In 2016, a civil rights lawsuit demanding the city create income-based payment plans to restore water failed, allowing water blackouts to continue. This July, the ACLU filed yet another lawsuit on behalf of six plaintiffs for constitutional violations and racial discrimination.

As for Akiva, her days revolved around a miserable quest for water, and the fear of not having it. When she was able to procure water, there was the problem of prioritization: Would her family drink it, bathe with it, or cook with it?

This calculus is very familiar to other Black women across the world.

In Soweto, South Africa’s largest Black city, Tebogo Modisane steps into the kitchen each morning and drinks water with lemon. Next, she determines if there is enough water to bathe. If so, it’s a quick bath with a sponge and baking soda. Modisane doesn’t use soap. She stopped using it to bathe some time ago.

“Soap contaminates the water,” she explained to me. Once the water is beyond all hygienic use, it can be used one last time to flush the toilet.

As a 41-year-old freelance event producer in Johannesburg, she finds that gigs aren’t steady, keeping Modisane, her family’s breadwinner, on a tight budget. Water is hardly a necessity she can eliminate from her budget.

“I’ve got four 25-liter buckets of water in the house just in case,” she said. Like most Soweto families, Modisane purchases water through a controversial prepay meter system, which automatically cuts off water when the prepaid limit is reached.

Johannesburg Water, which controls the water to 3 million residents, installed meters in homes in 2004. Regulating water through meters and their associated costs of installation meant a massive increase in the price of water, hitting poor communities and families like the Modisanes the hardest.

Before such meters were installed, residents paid based on usage. Now they purchase a set amount of water using a prepaid token. This way of living is divided along racial lines. While Black residents pay before they use water, most white families live in wealthier areas of Johannesburg where they pay for water after they use it. Meanwhile, the poorest travel to one of the free water taps Soweto offers in townships.

Not far from Modisane’s home, it’s common to see lines of Zulu women walking along a dirt road, balancing colorful buckets filled with water on their heads, heading home from the tap. These taps are a lifeline for those unable to pay for a meter or without the money to prepay for water. Before COVID-19 hit and South Africa banned gatherings, the spout was also a gathering place where children played and workers waited for the bus.

Elizabeth Ncube, 72, is one of the women who rely on these taps.

“When you find a working tap, you know there will be a lot of people there waiting in line,” she told me. Ncube is her family matriarch; she treks to the tap several times each day to secure enough water for cooking, cleaning, bathing, and washing clothes. Trudging heavy buckets of water is an everyday fact of life for thousands of Black women in Soweto. It’s also backbreaking.

“I am old now, and my body is sore,” Ncube said.

Elizabeth Ncube (far Left) stands in line to fill a bucket of water at one of the water taps in Soweto, South Africa, in October 2019. She treks to the tap several times each day to secure enough water for cooking, cleaning, and bathing.
Gulshan Khan

Like in Detroit, water is a dominant social and political issue in South Africa. Access to water had long been part of the anti-apartheid movement. The fight against systemic segregation and discrimination wasn’t just about political freedom, it was about socio-economic freedom and resources. The country’s wealth was held in the hands of a select few, and the poor and working-class activists wanted the redistribution of “national wealth,” which included water.

After the election of the African National Congress, the Republic of South Africa’s new post-apartheid ruling government began to abandon that populist idea of redistribution of all “national wealth,” deciding instead to shrink the state to ensure greater private-sector participation and to corporatize public services.

Modisane purchases 2,500 gallons of water a month. It’s not enough.

That led to the creation of a public-private partnership with a multinational water corporation, now called Johannesburg Water. Investors and corporations pushed the new system, saying it would bring about efficiency. The politicians, activists, and academics who opposed the meters say it only hurts the poor.

By 2009, the battle against the installation of prepayment meters ended up in constitutional court. Four years earlier, a fire broke out in Phiri, a neighborhood in Soweto. Neighbors scrambled to douse the blaze using prepaid water. As the fire raged, the prepaid meter cut the water due to insufficient credit. The home burned to the ground. The high court judges ultimately ruled against Sowetans.

Through that same prepay system, Modisane purchases 2,500 gallons of water a month. It’s not enough. For comparison, a U.S. family of four averages 9,000 gallons per month. With great effort and planning, Modisane has managed to effectively ration the family’s water consumption.

In low-income communities around the world, women like Modisane and Akiva tend to be responsible for handling a household’s water supply, sanitation, and health.

U.N.-Water, a United Nations office focused on freshwater and sanitation, explicitly recognizes this fact, noting that “addressing the needs of females in relation to water, sanitation and hygiene is a critical driver in achieving gender equity that is locking out the potential of half of global society.”

Many Americans think of water shortages as something that happens in “third-world” countries. But the same model of policies that force the poor to cover the cost of water and water infrastructure in South Africa is now being used in Detroit to pay off decades of debt.

In Detroit, the push to make people who live below the poverty line pay water bills they can’t afford stems from a classic neoliberal framework, which treats Detroit like a company instead of a city of people. Detroit was forced to declare the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Clearing debt and turning the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department into a revenue-generating agency became part of the bankruptcy settlement.

And just like in Johannesburg, Detroit decided to use water as a pressure point to collect money from mostly poor residents who have little legal recourse.

Detroit and Johannesburg both suffer from catastrophic segregation. Jonathan Silver, a professor of postcolonial urbanism at the University of Sheffield in the U.K., ties water shortages in Detroit and Johannesburg to a lengthy history of racist disenfranchisement.

“In South Africa, apartheid forced Black people out of Johannesburg and pushed them into a township outside of the city,” Silver explained. “Redlining kept African Americans out of the suburbs and concentrated the Black community in Detroit, cutting Black people off from cities that had state and governmental funding.”

Both cities have a population that’s around 80 percent Black. Although they are on opposite sides of the globe, the women in these two cities are living with a grim reality: When officials decide to cut or ration water—whether for profit, necessity, or both—women who are poor and Black are the ones who must wait.

“It’s not just that Detroit and Johannesburg both have remarkably grave racial histories,” said Malini Ranganathan, professor at American University’s School of International Service and a scholar of environmental racism, “but they also have eerily similar discourses of pathologizing, criminalizing, and dehumanizing Black households for a ‘culture of nonpayment.’ ”

For as long as U.S. cities have been rigidly segregated by race, officials have found ways to deprive communities of color of access to essential water services. In 1969, the first lawsuit against discriminatory practices of public services was filed in Shaw, Mississippi, a poor town with a majority-Black population. After two appeals, the courts ultimately determined that Shaw violated the 14th Amendment by failing to provide equal services to Black neighborhoods.

More recently, local governments in cities like Cleveland and Baltimore have taken punitive action against Black residents who can’t afford their water bills.

“They’re targeting Black people,” said Mary Grant, the public water for all campaign director at Food and Water Watch. “The data shows that communities with majority-Black populations in particular had the highest water burden.”

And the costs keep rising. From 2007 to 2018, the cost of water doubled in Detroit. Homeowners pay a staggering $1,151 annually compared with Phoenix, where residents of the golf course–studded desert city pay about two-thirds less. Back in Johannesburg, water tariffs rose nearly 10 percent in the past financial year, a blow to the Black residents who make up 72 percent of Johannesburg’s poor.

Ranganathan says cities must reimagine how they charge for water. The current system, she says, makes the poorest members of society pay the highest rate. But a progressive water tariff would upend that status quo.

“The wealthier or higher income or with larger property have to pay more for water per unit,” she said. “We can get to that situation if we use sound social justice–oriented economics.”

That would mean shifting the costs to heavy water users in sectors such as the meat industry, manufacturing, and the beverage industry as well as people with pools and golf courses, and away from Black women, who already bear a disproportionate burden of poverty and unemployment.

The ongoing pandemic has slowly started to shift people’s ideas about water.

So far, more than 1 million South Africans have been infected with the virus, the largest number of cases of any country in all of Africa. The government “dispatched 10,000 water tankers across the country to go into poor communities and provide water where it was not being made available,” said Dale McKinley, a South African researcher and activist at the International Labour Research and Information Group.

As the coronavirus cases began to climb in Detroit, human rights activist Monica Lewis-Patrick, CEO of We the People of Detroit, closely monitored the situation. Since late February, she and other Detroit activists pressured city and state officials to restore water to thousands of Detroit homes.

For years, they had argued that citizens must have access to running water to be able to wash their hands multiple times a day and prevent the spread of disease. In 2016, Detroit experienced the worst outbreak of hepatitis A in the United States. Activists felt it was directly related to the water shutoffs, which made it harder for residents to wash their hands. Detroit officials never recognized that the two were connected.

After so many years, Detroit’s leadership is finally starting to change its tune, with the mayor now saying the city’s goal is to “stop water shutoffs to low-income Detroiters once and for all.” But it’s still not clear how the city plans to do that.

For now, Black women are getting some water relief, but there’s no telling when the grace period will end.

“The global coronavirus pandemic and the work of advocates is forcing governments to reconsider the decision to treat water as an economic privilege,” said McKinley, “and instead begin to look at water as an essential need.”

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