As Detroit City Council approves water rate increases, local groups ask United Nations for assistance

June 19, 2014

A coalition of activists protest outside of the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department’s office in downtown Detroit on Friday, June 6. (Ryan Felton/Metro Times)

We’ve been paying close attention to the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department’s efforts to cut service to thousands of residents with outstanding fees. Meanwhile, Detroit City Council this week approved a 8.7 percent increase to water and sewerage rates for Detroiters — about a $5 increase. The timing was a bit poor.

Knowing an appeal to Detroit’s emergency manager would be futile, a few local groups decided to ask the United Nations for assistance. In a report released yesterday by the Detroit People’s Water Board, the Blue Planet Project, the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and Food & Water Watch, representatives of the group say they are “outraged” about DWSD’s “violation of the human right to water and sanitation in the city of Detroit and call on the authorities to take immediate action to restore water and stop further cut-offs.”

As we reported this week, the department will continue to cut service to roughly 3,000 delinquent customers per week who owe at least $150 to try recouping some $118 million in outstanding fees. The department has said upwards of 80,000 households are behind on their bill. According to DWSD representatives, they cut service to 7,056 residential and commercial accounts in April and May, which is “reaping great benefits with the department” — about $400,000.

That shouldn’t be how the department tries to generate revenue, says Maude Barlow, chairman of the Food & Water Watch Board and founder of Blue Planet Project.

“By denying water service to thousands, Detroit is violating the human right to water,” Barlow says in a statement this week. “After decades of policies that put businesses and profits ahead of the public good, the city now has a major crisis on its hands. It is shocking and abominable that anyone would be subjected to these conditions.”

What sort of conditions is Barlow talking about? The eight-page Submission to the Special Rapporteur has a few examples:

The Detroit People’s Water Board is hearing directly from people impacted by the water cut-offs who say they were given no warning and had no time to fill buckets, sinks and tubs before losing access to water. In some cases, the cut-offs occurred before the deadline given in notices sent by the city. Sick people have been left without running water and working toilets. People recovering from surgery cannot wash and change bandages. Children cannot bathe and parents cannot cook.

The [Michigan Welfare Rights Organization] was recently contacted by a woman who moved in to care for her ailing father, who had received a shut-off notice from the DWSD. She offered to make the full payment, but was told the DWSD would not accept the payment because the bill was in her father’s name and she did not have papers to show she was his representative. Her picture I.D. has the same address as his, but the DWSD would not accept payment.

The MWRO recently spoke to a woman whose water was shut off without any notice from the city. She reported that when she and her Department of Human Services worker called the water department, she was informed that if people have outstanding bills for more than two months no advance notice is required.

A spokesperson for the department says the latter example isn’t department policy. “That is absolutely not true,” the spokesperson says. “DWSD sends shut-off notices when accounts are past due.”

The spokesperson says DWSD has a computer system which identifies 60-day delinquent accounts. A shut-off notice is then mailed to the account holder. DWSD’s initiative comes as a time when some corporate accounts in the city have been identified as having hundreds of thousands of dollars in outstanding fees. It’s unclear if those companies have paid their remaining fees yet.

Food & Water Watch reports that Detroit residents rates have increased by nearly 120 percent over the last 10 years.

It’s unclear what the impact of the submission will be. According to the United Nations Office of the High Commission for Human Rights website, the Special Rapporteur “relies heavily on information from indigenous peoples, their organizations and NGOs. The Special Rapporteur encourages these sources to submit information that relates to his mandate from the Human Rights Council, which is to promote the human rights of indigenous peoples and address specific situations in which their rights are being violated. This information may be about positive developments, studies or conferences of interests, new initiatives or problem situations.”

The Special Rapporteur has the authorization to act on “credible information alleging human rights violations of indigenous peoples,” the website says.

  • kenk

    Going to the UN? Sam Riddle was right when he said that the only thing Detroit is missing for third world status is goats in the street; although another article in MT this week says they’ve(the goats) been kicked out.

  • Stephen Martin

    What happened to America? Appealing to the UN? What is that all about?

  • marysaunders

    The UN’s record in Haiti was to send troops in from countries whose violence profiles were worse than Haiti’s, then to pretend the cholera epidemic had nothing to do with these troops, even after the organism involved was shown by researchers to be from one of the occupying countries. The UN also allowed Monsanto to “gift” seeds that some of the people did not want, seeds that were coated in ways that require careful handling in the U.S., but these seeds were left unprotected from wandering chickens and possibly children in Haiti. There are more examples of service to elites with power who wanted to exploit Haiti rather than help ordinary Haitians above the ones they wanted to have working in sweat shops. Possibly there are some examples of service to non-elites, but I am unaware of those. Neighborhoods in Detroit are probably going to have to organize to source their own water outside the monopoly without expecting help from outside. This is likely a good idea anyway, as monopolies often fall down on safety and service. Water that makes you sick is not a service. Water activists in Portland, Oregon, are watching carefully, as our monopoly is controlled by politicians who have wanted to have closed, R.S.V.P. meetings in the work day about what taxes they will levy next. These meetings exploit ordinary people. The agenda consists of sermonizing at citizens, wearing people down. Thenm independent testimony is ignored. For years, no-bid contracts have been standard operating procedure. We recorded citizen testimony against these, from doctors and lawyers and all other walks of life, to no avail. The UN is controlled by the same elites who control most everything else. Appealing to the UN works for some populations that are popular with the elites, but it does not work, that I can see, for anyone else. I don’t know how good the aquifers are under Detroit, but drilling and testing may be in order.

  • Teresa

    I’m glad someone has a back bone in this city. All the politician are scared. All they know is yes sira!!!