Detroit, Michigan is in the news again, this time with sound and fury around planned water shutoffs. A simple google search on the topic returns over 400,000 pages
The issues facing the city of Detroit have been featured on this blog a number of times, starting with a discussion of the infrastructure management implications of the bankruptcy; a look at the progress one year on, with some observations for infrastructure managers.
In our blog about the ‘Mower Gang’ we looked at citizens initiated service provision when the city does not have budget to complete work.
Water Shut Offs
The debate that is currently raging in Detroit is around paying for water, and water infrastructure provision versus the basic human right to access to water. Even the United Nations has waded into the debate.
Some of the reporting includes statements around Detroit Water and Sewerage being prepared for sale, with very poor people reported as being penalized to pay for corporations and the Detroit Bankruptcy.
The classic poor verses rich corporation spin that can generate a lot of political commentary and debate.
Infrastructure Management Issues
Putting aside the politics of the situation for a moment, lets examine the basic infrastructure management issues.
City water networks are complex, have a large range of assets of varying ages and condition. These networks, including treatment facilities, require on-going operations, maintenance, asset replacement and renewal, and from time to time new capital.
This all costs money, and as anyone working in the sector knows – there is no such thing as free water.
The actual costs of water provision vary from network to network and will be determined by water sources, treatment costs, other regulatory costs, age and type of network, and costs associated with service levels delivered. Some of these costs can be variable and through good management controlled or lowered, other costs are relatively fixed.
Good infrastructure management practices can optimize the costs of water provision, predict long term expenditure requirements, and provide for a range of scenarios around options for management and expenditure optimization.
This allows decision makers to trade-off service levels, risks and the cost of service provision. All of these techniques can be applied to any water network.
The salient point is of course, while the long term expenditure profile can be well managed and optimized, the provision of water network services is not free and never will be. Modern city water networks are in fact relatively costly, with the annual cost of service ranging from millions through to hundreds of millions of dollars per year.
So Who Pays?
Following on from the infrastructure management discussion above it is clear that “someone” has to pay for the provision of city water networks.
As I follow US news this seems to be a debate currently across the USA, and across most infrastructure sectors. It is not unique to the USA – we often have similar debates in New Zealand and Australia.
It seems to be a basic part of human nature that at one level we would all like “someone” else to pay for our stuff. This can be expressed as:
- A Country wanting other countries or international organisations to meet costs or pay for services
- A City wanting the State or Federal Government to meet costs or pay for services
- An Individual or Neighborhood wanting someone (perhaps the city) to pay for services
The reason this question generates passionate political debate is that this question lies at the heart of political philosophy and human organisation – tribalism compared with individualism compared with Marxism, compared with Socialism, compared with Capitalism and no doubt 1,000 more shades of political differentiation.
I am not a political scientist, so I will stay clear of the argument, other than to observe as an infrastructure manager – “someone” has to pay for infrastructure or it will ultimately completely degrade and stop being functional.
This effect can be readily be observed in countries, or cities that cannot afford their current infrastructure or services.
Simply, if service levels are to be maintained, there needs to be some level of sustained investment and management, that “someone” needs to pay for.
There is no easy answer to the question, who pays? I suspect as societies we will still be having the discussion in 100 years’ time, so as infrastructure managers we had better get used to the topic.
In my next post “Detroit Water Shut Offs – Management Techniques to Assist With Payment“, I have outlined some suggestions on how Detroit will be able to cope with the water service issues confronting them. Please read it by clicking on the link below: