2020 Water Summit in Detroit highlights parallels between Detroit and 'third-world cities'

Martina Guzman | January 27, 2020

Left to right: Rev. Alex, Plum Deacon for Health Ministries at Cass Community United Methodist Church, Mr. Jefferson B. Knight, from Liberia, Dr. Peter Hammer, Director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Rev. JoAnn Watson, Senior Pastor of West Side Unity Church

Activists from the U.S, Africa, and Central America convened In the sanctuary of Cass Community United Methodist Church in Midtown Detroit this past weekend for the 2020 Global Water Summit. Their goal was to further the exchange of ideas around generating clean water for communities in need. 

“Our global partners have so much to teach us about how they are solving water problems,” said Alex Plum, Deacon for Health Ministries at the church. As an example, Plum pointed to innovations being implemented across the globe that use renewable power to build self-reliant, community-based clean water systems. 

Holding the summit was also a way for the United Methodist Church to reaffirm its commitment to social justice, particularly its opposition to water shutoffs to low-income residents in Detroit, according to Plum. Broader issues such as water as a global human right and water affordability were discussed, but the Detroit water shutoffs overshadowed much of the conference.  

“We are standing up and advocating against the shutoffs,” Plum said. “Churches need to stop thinking about water issues as something that happens outside the U.S., and start paying attention to what’s happening here.”

Krista Dover traveled from Guatemala to attend the event. She is the executive director for Clean Water for the World based in Kalamazoo, an organization that builds water purifiers the size of a carry-on suitcase and gives them to communities who don’t have access to clean water.  The purifiers are small but mighty; one unit can purify 300 gallons per hour and has the capacity to provide enough purified water for a community of 600 people.

When Dover began traveling to Guatemala ten years ago, she said she began to notice many parallels between what was happening in developing countries and in Detroit. 

“There were issues of violence, a lack of access to education, a lack of access to water… they are the same issues in both places,” Dover said. “You can call the U.S a developed country, but there are populations, Black and brown women specifically, that are completely forgotten and abandoned.”

The City of Detroit began shutting off water to its citizens for non-payment in 2014. People took to the streets to protest and UN human rights officials who came to assess the situation said they were shocked by what was happening in an American city. Since 2014, Detroit has shut off water to more than 130 thousand homes. Those water shutoffs continue to this day.

Much of the criticism stemmed from the lack of consideration for Detroit’s poor. Unemployment is still double the national average and has barely begun to recover from the Great Recession. Recent reporting by the Detroit News has uncovered that Detroit citizens were charged illegally high tax rates during that period. 

Former city councilwoman Dr. JoAnn Watson sat on a Global Human Rights, Action & Advocacy panel. “The same people victimized by water shutoffs are the same people who were overtaxed by $600 million," she said. "They were led to believe that the shutoffs and the foreclosures happened because of their own failure! Thousands of citizens being denied water is a sin, it’s an act against God."

“What’s happening in Detroit needs to be looked through the lens of spatial and structural racism,” said Dr. Peter Hammer, Director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights and speaker at the conference. 

Almost seven years after the water shutoffs began “there is mass displacement, people are becoming mobile, they’re leaving Detroit because their water is being shut off, their car insurance is unaffordable and the water in schools is contaminated,” Hammer said. 

In the late afternoon on the second day of the conference, Cecily McClellan, one of the founding members of We The People of Detroit sat at her table taking things in. 

“This conference is different," said McLellan. "it connects water issues locally, nationally and internationally,” McClellan said. "I now understand that Detroit is like a third-world city.”  

Rev. Jon Reynolds, Rev. Alex Plum, Pastor Paul Perez, and Mr. Jefferson Knight of The Cass Community United Methodist Church organized the conference.