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Detroit activists call for UN help as city shuts off water for thousands

City's water utility keeps raising rates as it falls further into debt; nearly half of customers are behind on payments

Detroit has too much of some things – stray dogsabandoned houses – and not enough of others, such as residents who pay their water bills.

The latest sign of Detroit’s decline came from the city’s water department, when it said in March it would begin shutting off water for up to 3,000 homes and businesses a week in an attempt to stop the utility from sliding even further into debt.

The announcement sparked outrage among activists groups, who say the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) is going after the city’s most vulnerable citizens to shore up its bottom line.

Now those groups have called on the United Nations to intervene. In a letter sent to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation last week, local nonprofit Detroit People’s Water Board, Food and Water Watch and Canada-based Blue Planet Project pleaded for the world body to weigh in on the shut-offs.

"What we see is a violation of the human right to water," said Meera Karunananthan, an international campaigner with the Blue Planet Project. "The U.S. has international obligations in terms of people’s right to water, and this is a blatant violation of that right. We’re hoping the U.N. will put pressure on the federal government and the state of Michigan to do something about it."

The groups accuse DWSD of charging unaffordable rates to Detroit citizens, and placing the burden of the city's fleeing tax base on its poorest residents. They say DWSD is trying to rid itself of low-income customers in a bid to make the utility more attractive for a private takeover. DWSD denies the charge. But the city has acknowledged that at least a partial privatization of DWSD is being considered as Detroit attempts to shed some of its $18 billion in debt. DWSD accounts for $5 billion of that sum.

DWSD has struggled to stay afloat as hundreds of thousands of Detroiters have left the city over the last several decades, leaving the utility with an outsized, aging system, and too few paying customers.

"We really don't want to shut off anyone’s water, but it’s really our duty to go after those who don’t pay, because if they don’t pay then our other customers pay for them," said DWSD spokeswoman Curtrise Garner. "That’s not fair to our other customers."

Garner also said the new focus on shutting off delinquent accounts had nothing to do with making the utility more attractive to private investors. "We've just changed the way we’re doing business," she said.

Nearly 50 percent of DWSD’s 323,000 accounts were behind on payments as of March, according to the Detroit Free Press. That’s left DWSD with $175 million in outstanding bills.

Detroit tried to integrate DWSD with the water systems of richer suburban counties earlier this year, but that effort failed after the counties said they feared absorbing DWSD would saddle them with too much debt.

At the same time that the utility has financially faltered, it has raised rates significantly. According to activists, the rate for residential customers has doubled in the last 10 years. The average bill is now $75 a month, according to the Free Press, much higher than the nation’s average rate of about $40.

Earlier this week, DWSD said it would again raise rates, this time by 8.7 percent.

“There are families that have gone months and months without water,” Mia Cupp, the director of development at nonprofit Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency, told the Free Press. “You can only imagine, how do go to the bathroom? How do you take showers? How do you clean yourself? .... You can’t conduct the normal daily things that you would do.”

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