United Nations experts slam Detroit water service shutoffs as an affront to human rights

June 25, 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)

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)

In response to a report issued last week by a coalition of local activist groups, United Nations experts Wednesday said the city of Detroit’s plan to cut water service to thousands of customers behind on their bills may violate the human right to water.

The report – submitted by Blue Planet Project, Food & Water Watch, Detroit People’s Water Board and the Michigan Welfare Organization – called on the UN for assistance, saying the plan to cut service to roughly 3,000 delinquent customers per week who owe at least $150 is a “violation of the human right to water and sanitation in the city of Detroit.”

The UN response also follows a vote from Detroit City Council last week to increase water and sewerage rates for residents by 8.7 percent, roughly $5 more per month. Officials from the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department have said it’s attempting to recoup some $118 million in outstanding fees.

Catarina de Albuquerque, the first UN special rapporteur on the human right to water and sanitation, said in a statement that “disconnections due to non-payment are only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying.”

“In other words,” she said, “when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections.”

It’s unclear what the impact of the experts response may 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.”

As Metro Times previously reported, the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department says upwards of 80,000 Detroit households are behind on their bill. More than 7,000 residential and commercial accounts lost in April and May, of which 60 percent were restored within 24 hours, according to DWSD. Forty percent of those remaining customers paid their late fees within the next 24 hours, a spokesperson said this week, meaning roughly 15 percent remained without service.

DWSD has said customers who either owe $150 or are 60 days past-due would receive a shut-off notice in the mail.

But in the eight-page report to the UN the local groups outlined some instances where shutoffs came without an actual warning, generating sub-par living conditions:

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.

As Ann Rall of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization told Metro Times earlier this month, the cuts put parents at risk of losing their children to welfare services. Even then, she says, without service, parents still likely have to find friends and relatives with water to care for their children.

Leilani Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing echoed those concerns in her statement today, saying: “If these water disconnections disproportionately affect African Americans, they may be discriminatory, in violation of treaties the US has ratified.” The experts say it’s Michigan’s obligation to provide “urgent measures” to ensure access to water and sanitation under international human rights law.

The report from local groups also raises concerns about the fate of the water utility, as Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr is considering privatizing operations. Experts have said that almost certainly would bring about additional rate increases to customers. The department serves over four million people across metro Detroit.

U.S. Rep John Conyers (D-Detroit) also took aim at the shutoff plan this week, saying in a statement that “draconian water cutoffs are not a pathway to financial solvency.”

“To the contrary,” Conyers says.”Actions that deny residents the ability to bathe, hydrate, or prepare meals for themselves and their families create costly long-term public health challenges. These water cutoffs are not only inhumane, but economically short-sighted.”

Conyers says he plans to introduce legislation to “protect access to water during bankruptcy proceedings,” as well as work with members of the U.S. Congress to potentially tap federal emergency relief. Detroit filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in United States history last summer.

Democracy Now!, the daily progressive news program, spoke this week with Maureen Taylor, of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, and Meera Karunananthan, of Blue Planet Project, about the situation in Detroit. You can tune in to that below.


Update: This story now includes statements from U.S. Rep. John Conyers nor the Democracy Now! footage and clarifies the percentage of accounts who had service restored.  

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