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UN panel: Detroit water cutoffs violate human rights

A large-scale water shutoff is underway in Detroit, a move that advocates say is taking its toll on the poor

A United Nations team of experts said Wednesday that Detroit officials’ decision to shut off water service to thousands of residents who are late in paying bills is an affront to human rights.

“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,” the U.N. officials said in a news release. “Because of a high poverty rate and a high unemployment rate, relatively expensive water bills in Detroit are unaffordable for a significant portion of the population.”

The U.N. assessment comes days after a coalition of welfare rights groups — including the Detroit People’s Water Board, Food and Water Watch and Canada-based Blue Planet Project — pleaded in an open letter for the world body to intervene.

The coalition issued a report on June 18 that contained the testimony of people who were affected by the service shutoffs and said they were given no warning.

“Sick people have been left without running water and working toilets,” the report said. “People recovering from surgery cannot wash and change bandages. Children cannot bathe and parents cannot cook.”

Detroit’s water department announced in March that it would resume shutting off service for up to 3,000 homes and businesses a week in an attempt to alleviate some of its debt. The department said it would target customers whose bills are more than two months late.

Curtrise Garner, a water department spokesperson, subsequently said that 4,500 customers had their service cut in May.

The service cuts provoked outrage among activists, who say the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) is going after the city’s most vulnerable citizens. 

In their letter to the U.N., the welfare rights groups accused the DWSD of charging exorbitant rates to local residents and placing the burden of the city's fleeing tax base upon the shoulders of its poorest people.

They alleged that the DWSD is attempting to rid itself of low-income customers in an effort to make the utility more attractive for a private takeover.

Although the DWSD has denied the charges, Detroit has acknowledged that a partial privatization of the department is being considered as the bankrupt city struggles to shed some of its $18 billion debt.

DWSD expenditures make up nearly $5 billion of that sum.

Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers condemned the decision Tuesday night, calling it inhumane and “economically short-sighted," the Detroit Free Press reported.

He said he plans to introduce legislation to protect access to water during the city’s bankruptcy proceedings, adding that he will be working with federal and state officials in the coming days to find a solution, which will include requesting federal emergency relief.

“Detroit’s water crisis did not happen in a vacuum,” Conyers told the Detroit Free Press. "Over the past decade, Detroiters have seen their water rates increase by 119 percent. Over this same period, forces beyond city residents’ control — including a global financial crisis that left one in five local residences in foreclosure and sent local unemployment rates skyrocketing — severely undercut Detroiters’ ability to pay.”

It is expected that some 30,000 households will be disconnected from water services over the next few months, according to the U.N. release.

The large-scale service shutoffs risk being inequitable, according to Leilani Farha, one member of the U.N. team. “If these water disconnections disproportionately affect African-Americans they may be discriminatory, in violation of treaties the U.S. has ratified,” Farha said in the press release.

She urged the U.S. government to ensure due process guarantees in relation to water disconnections.  

According to international human rights law, states are obligated to provide urgent remedial measures, including financial assistance, to ensure access to essential water and sanitation. “The households which suffered unjustified disconnections must be immediately reconnected,” the U.N. experts said.

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