No Money, No Water: Detroit’s Shutting Off H2O to 150,000 Residents

People are left with no water to bathe in or drink, and the U.N. has declared that the city is violating human rights.

Homes on the east side of Detroit as well as residents all over the city stand to lose water. (Photo: Suzanne Tucker/Getty Images)

Staff Writer Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

The Motor City is playing serious hardball with residents who have fallen behind on paying their water bills. Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department has begun turning off the taps of 150,000 residents who are at least two months behind on payments. People are being left without a drop to drink and no ability to bathe or use the toilet. Now a coalition of water and human rights activists has banded together to ask the United Nations to step in and end the disconnections.

Last week, advocates from the Detroit People’s Water Board, Food and Water Watch, Blue Planet Project, and Michigan Welfare Rights Organization submitted a comprehensive report to the U.N.’s special rapporteur that details the dire situation facing folks whose water has been cut off. 

“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,” write the report’s authors. And “families concerned about children being taken away by authorities due to lack of water and sanitation services in the home have been sending their children to live with relatives and friends, which has an impact on school attendance and related activities.”

In 2013, Detroit declared bankruptcy—it’s $18 billion in the hole. Half of the 323,000 customers served by the city’s Department of Water and Sanitation have either paid their bills late or simply can’t afford service, to the tune of $175 million. Back in March, the department announced that it would be cutting service to residents who hadn’t paid up. Although the city claims that it started sending out notices about the disconnections in March, the report’s authors write that they heard “directly from people impacted by the water cutoffs who say they were given no warning and had no time to fill buckets, sinks, and tubs before losing access to water.”

“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,” department spokesperson Curtrise Garner told Al Jazeera America. “That’s not fair to our other customers.”

However, activists claim the city has been unfairly overcharging Detroit residents for water to compensate for its significant financial woes. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 38.1 percent of Detroit residents are living below the poverty line. Despite the tough times many people are facing, they’ve been paying an average of $64.99 a month, significantly higher than the national average of about $40, and rates are only going up. The Detroit City Council just approved a nearly 9 percent rate increase for water.

“What we see is a violation of the human right to water,” Meera Karunananthan, an international campaigner with Blue Planet Project, told Al Jazeera America. “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.”

Three U.N. human rights experts issued a statement on Wednesday, declaring that “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.”

“When I conducted an official country mission to the U.S. in 2011, I encouraged the U.S. government to adopt a federal minimum standard on affordability for water and sanitation and a standard to provide protection against disconnections for vulnerable groups and people living in poverty,” said Catarina de Albuquerque, who is the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation. “I also urged the government to ensure due process guarantees in relation to water disconnection.”

One of the experts, Leilani Farha, who focuses on the right to adequate housing, also pointed out the racial implications of shutting off water to the nearly 83 percent black population. “If these water disconnections disproportionately affect African Americans, they may be discriminatory, in violation of treaties the U.S. has ratified,” said Farha.

Although the experts declared that “households [that] suffered unjustified disconnections must be immediately reconnected,” when was the last time the U.N. issued sanctions against an American municipality for human rights violations? In the meantime, 3,000 residents have lost their water, and Detroit plans to turn off the service of thousands more every week. 

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