Laura Gottesdiener

UN officials ‘shocked’ by Detroit’s mass water shutoffs

Two UN rapporteurs recommended Detroit immediately resume water service for residents unable to pay their bills

Surrounded by a frenzy of cameras, Detroit resident Rochelle McCaskill explained her predicament to a team of United Nations officials on Sunday: The numbers simply didn’t add up.

Out of her $672 monthly disability check, McCaskill spends $600 rent, she said, leaving her unable to pay the city’s water bills, which have skyrocketed to more than twice the national average.

“They need a category for those of us who cannot pay,” said McCaskill, whose water was shut off this summer as part of a wave of disconnections that, block by block, have left thousands of city residents without running water.

The city turned off McCaskill’s water despite the fact that she had been paying down her $540.10 water bill in increments and that she suffers from MRSA, a contagious infection that the NIH considers a “serious public health concern” and requires frequent bathing.

“It makes you feel like a failure in your own home,” she said, as she described washing and brushing her teeth with buckets of water delivered by the community group We the People of Detroit, part of the People’s Water Board Coalition.

McCaskill was one of dozens of residents, teachers, water department employees and parents who testified to two U.N. officials, who expressed concern that the shutoffs threatened residents’ human right to water and, in a city where the population is more than 80 percent African-American, could constitute discrimination under international law.

“We were shocked, impressed by the proportions of the disconnections and by the way that it is affecting the weakest, the poorest and the most vulnerable,” said Catarina de Albuquerque, the U.N. special rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, at a press conference on Monday.

“I’ve been to rich countries like Japan and Slovenia where basically 99 percent of population have access to water, and I’ve been to poor countries where half the population doesn’t have access to water … but this large-scale retrogression or backwards steps is new for me.” She added, “From a human rights perspective, any retrogression should be seen as a human right violation.”

On Oct. 18, de Albuquerque and Leilani Farha, U.N. special rapporteur on adequate housing, arrived in Detroit to conduct an informal fact-finding mission into the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s water shut-offs. The city has disconnected water from at least 27,000 households this year, with as many as 10,000 households currently without running water. Hundreds of thousands of additional households are at risk of having their tap cut.

In response, lawyers filed Lyda v. City of Detroit on behalf of residents who have had their water severed. But in late September, Detroit’s bankruptcy judge ruled that, although “water is a necessary ingredient to sustaining life,” residents nevertheless have no “enforceable right” to water and that the city needed the revenue.

That’s where the United Nations comes in.

“Disconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights,” U.N. officials de Albuquerque and Farha wrote in advance of their arrival.

I have had to train my children, [saying to them]: ‘If you do not have water, you cannot tell me ... because the people will come get you.’

Theresa Clayton

third-grade teacher

Throughout the weekend, the officials met with residents, such as Nicole Hill, a full-time student and mother of three who is a plaintiff in the Lyda case. Hill had her water cut in May, after a protracted battle with the water department over the agency’s failure to close her account from her previous residence. After the shutoff, she sent her son to live with a classmate and her daughters to live with family. Two and a half weeks into the shutoff, she testified, the police showed up at her door with her eight-year-old daughter in tow. The girl, missing her mother, had attempted to walk home at two in the morning.

Many residents expressed fear about custody rights because having no running water is grounds for the city’s child protective services to remove children. Theresa Clayton, a third-grade teacher in the Detroit Public School system who is required to report students without water to child protective services, explained: “I have had to train my children, [saying to them]: ‘If you do not have water, you cannot tell me ... because the people will come get you.’”

At a town hall meeting on Sunday, a school board member said that one high school principal has begun to open the school at five a.m. so that the students could shower and wash their clothes. Many residents also expressed concerned about the sanitation and public health crisis that could arise from the lack of access to water, especially as flu season sets in.

This fear was echoed by the U.N. officials.

“We might have dire consequences in terms of public health,” said de Albuquerque.

Rochelle McCaskill's house in southwest Detroit.
Laura Gottesdiener

The mass shutoffs began earlier this year as negotiators attempted to maneuver the city out of the largest municipal bankruptcy in federal history. This plan includes wresting the Detroit Water and Sewage Department from city control and consolidating it into a broader regional agency called the Greater Lake Water Authority.

Many residents view the step as a path toward the department’s eventual privatization, especially since other essential city services, including the garbage pickup, some police functions and even the health department, have all been privatized during the bankruptcy.

The U.N. officials stated that the city is still bound by international human rights law despite the municipal bankruptcy and being under the rule of an appointed emergency manager.

“The fact that the city is in such a situation doesn’t exempt it from human rights obligations,” said de Albuquerque. When the audience in the press conference burst into applause, she appeared confused. “What I’m saying is nothing special.”

The water department itself carries about $5.4 billion in bonded debt, which has forced the agency to divert revenue. In 2011, for example, the agency spent $537 million that had been earmarked for repairs paying off interest-rate swaps to major banks. Meanwhile, over the last decade, Detroit’s water bills have ballooned almost 120 percent, both as a result of the toxic financial products and the city’s depopulation, driven by the foreclosure crisis. Currently, 40 percent of city residents live under the poverty line and nearly half are behind on their water bills.

The water shutoffs are not unique to Detroit. Claire McClinton, a retired autoworker from Flint, Michigan, testified that households, mobile home parks and even a homeless drop-in center have had their water disconnected in her hometown. The drop-in center, she explained, converted itself into an emergency hub for distributing bottled water.

But the massive scale of the shutoffs in the Motor City has drawn international attention. Over the summer, caravans filled with water arrived from Canada and West Virginia. Bolivian labor leader Oscar Olivera, who helped spearhead the 2000 Cochabamba water wars that defeated military contractor Bechtel’s attempts to privatize the city’s water supply, met with Detroit activists. Meanwhile, faith and civil society leaders in Detroit have launched protests and blockades of the private contracting company Homrich Inc., which won a $5.6 million contract from the city to carry out the disconnections.

Throughout the weekend, residents expressed frustration that, while low-income residents’ water is cut, businesses are allowed to rack up huge water debts without having service interruptions. The Detroit Red Wings’ hockey arena, for example, owes $80,000, while the Detroit Lions’ stadium owes $55,000. In total, commercial and industrial users owe $30 million in unpaid water bills.

The U.N. officials issued a series of recommendations to city, state and federal officials, including that the city immediately resume water service for residents who cannot pay.

“What I am calling for is a total prohibition of disconnections of people who cannot afford to pay, and people who are in a particularly vulnerable position,” said de Albuquerque.

As for Nicole Hill, her water service resumed in July, only to be cut off again without notice by Homrich contractors on Oct. 7. Nine hours later, a city water employee came to her door to hang a flier advising her that her water would soon be disconnected.

“I said, ‘Sweetheart, the water’s already been off.’”

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