UN Respond to Water Shut Offs in Detroit

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Human Rights, International


by Jamison Maeda

The United Nations has responded to pleas for assistance regarding the thousands of people in Detroit, Michigan whose water has been shut off.

A statement from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights says “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. Disconnections due to non-payment are only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying…when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections. The households which suffered unjustified disconnections must be immediately reconnected. 

Since last month, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has been shutting off water for over 3,000 household every week for owing as little as $150. The utility claims they are not targeting poor families and that this is standard policy for late payment. However, a high-end golf course, a hockey arena, a football stadium, and more than half of the city’s commercial users are also are behind in their water payments for more than $30 million and no one has come to shut off their water. A spokesman for the Detroit Water and Sewerage claims that most customers can pay their water bill, they just choose not to. This claim is ridiculous to the point of being offensive as nearly half of residents of Detroit live below the poverty line, and unemployment has risen to over 17%. Despite significant poverty and unemployment in Detroit, last week the city council approved an 8.7% increase in water charges, making a total increase of 119% over the last 10 years. The water charges in Detroit are nearly double the national average.

The water shut-offs have occurred in impoverished neighborhoods and the vast majority of people affected are black. “If these water disconnections disproportionately affect African Americans they may be discriminatory, in violation of treaties the US has ratified,” says Leilani Farha, U.N. expert on the right to adequate housing.

U.S. Congressman John Conyers has requested that the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Water and Sanitation conduct an investigation into the legality of these water shut-offs under the authority of an unelected emergency manager. In a referendum, the people of Detroit overwhelmingly voted against the imposition of an unelected emergency manager, however Michigan’s governor passed a law in the middle of the night with a provision rendering referendums meaningless.

The actions of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department are clearly a prelude to privatization. The utility wants to impress potential investors by getting tough on those who miss payments.  “It’s quite possible the emergency manager is kind of clearing the books in order to make the water system more attractive to potential private investors.” said Kate Fried, a spokeswoman for Food & Water Watch. Privatization of utilities is a growing trend. Unfortunately, it only benefits shareholders and has been demonstrated to increase water costs and provide lower quality service

Nothing could better demonstrate the gap in America between the rich and the poor than its citizens pleading for international aid because they don’t have access to clean water. And for a utility in an obvious bid for privatization to expose almost half of the city’s residents to a health crisis, is the worst kind of corporate greed.