If you've read the news recently you've probably seen this: the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) is shutting off water on customers with $150 or more in overdue bills. Residents are protesting saying water is a human right and they should not be denied water. But I've got some problems with the protesters and some problems with our water systems, and the way we think about water infrastructure.
Water infrastructure is expensive. We've built the water infrastructure in the United States up over the last 200 years with billions and billions of dollars from private and public sources. The introduction of water privatization in the United States has created a rift between sustainability groups and water providers (whether public or private), and the idea that clean water should be provided to all citizens has become more prominent.
First, here is what I constitute as a 'sustainable' system: one that is developed and maintained in a manner that is economically, ecologically, and socially sound. One that implements the best practices for each of these branches, and strives to develop them further in order to protect each economical, ecological, and social aspect that system affects.
My experience with the activist community has shown me that activists are often not scientists. I have seen some of the most effective and well known activists in my community get their information solely from popular media sources or word of mouth. I would argue that this is ethically irresponsible for an activist to wants to promote the good in a community or to change something for the positive. If you don't know what you are changing, how can you do it in the most effective manner? Here is an example from a recent protest at my university:
A group of students formed a student union (outside of student government and not associated with university administration). They formed a protest to fight against the cutting of various classes, programs, and tuition hikes. They marched to the administration building and while there, ended up asking a series of repetitive and uninformed questions about the universities budget--something they could have easily informed themselves on beforehand, saving their group much embarrassment and discoloration by administration and other groups involved in the protest. These protesters (who have a cause that I support--fighting administrative bloat), fought their fight in a way that cuts down the power and credibility of protesters--of their own group and everywhere. They were uneducated in their own movement, taking on a huge campaign to try to change something they didn't even understand. Had they understood the universities budgeting and used numbers and objective argument to develop their case, perhaps they would have been more effective in supporting their fight in addition to supporting worldwide credibility of protesters.
I see a similar pattern with the Detroit protesters. Although I am not there, and I obviously don't have the ability to extensively survey the situation from a primary perspective, I believe they same phenomenon may be occurring--protesting with one branch of sustainability in mind, and without an understand of the mechanics of the system they are trying to change. Water systems are complicated. My own work with water systems has shown me that they take hundreds (if not more) of people to support the infrastructure required. They have been built over hundreds of years, and require serious amounts of money to maintain. It is my understanding that much of the public sees water systems only as the water that comes out of the tap with the occasional thought about the plumbing in their houses. It seems unlikely to me that many of these protesters are thinking about the work it takes to bring water from "Lake St. Clair, Clinton River, Detroit River, Rouge River, Ecorse River, in the U.S. and parts of the Thames River, Little River, Turkey Creek and Sydenham watersheds in Canada," (Detroit 2013) through water treatment plants (a difficult and expensive process that is constantly updated with changing technology and regulation), and pipes through miles and miles of underground infrastructure to be delivered at a house. And I'm not blaming anybody for not having a doctorate level understanding of drinking water infrastructure, I'm just saying fights are better fought when you understand what one is fighting. Sure, it sucks to have your water cut off. And it may very well be a social justice issue if the customers that are being targeted have a lower socioeconomic status and there are other customers (businesses, corporations, or middle-upper class individuals) that also have equal, higher, and more significant water bills.
So fight for social justice, fight for sustainable economics--but understand the mechanics and management of the system you are being slighted by so that you may better change it for the good of all.
Quality Manager, W. (2013). 2012 Water Quality Report. Detroit. Retrieved from http://www.dwsd.org/downloads_n/customer_service/customer_information/water_quality_report.pdf