Oct 30, 2014 0
Detroit has been facing an unimaginable situation: in the past nine months, the municipality has shut off water services to over 27, 000 of its residents. The City chose this course of action in response to its residents’ inability to pay their bills, and as an attempt to reduce the utility company’s multi-million dollar debt. Under the policy, customers that are over 60 days late in bill payments are at danger of having their water services shut off. This forces many poor Detroiters to make some very difficult, unimaginable choices – for example, “to pay the water bill or to pay their rent.”
The UN has recently taken up the mantle of determining whether these water shut offs qualify as a violation of basic human rights. According to Catarina de Albuquerque, UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, and Leilani Farha, UN Special Rapporteur on housing, the shutoffs hurt “the most vulnerable and the poorest”. Ultimately, it is the low-income and African-American populations that have been disproportionately affected.
The Mayor’s Chief of Staff, Alexis Wiley, has defending the City’s actions by bringing attention to the unfair nature of forcing paying Detroit residents to “pick up the tab” for those who are not. In fact, some Detroit residents are receiving bills of over $4, 000 because, according to Ms. Wiley, “there are so many people who aren’t paying”.
The city has introduced a plan to help to help its residents pay their bills over the next two years. There have also been private donations made to qualifying residents. According to Ms. de Albequerque, however, this is not enough. The UN officials have recommended the creation of a mandatory federal water and sewage affordability standard and a special allowance for particularly vulnerable persons, such as “persons with disabilities, the chronically ill, and households with small children”.
This past September, federal bankruptcy judge Steven Rhodes ruled that there is no right to free water, and that the city could not afford to lose that revenue. While the UN does not have the authority to order the city to end its water shutoff program, and while it is unable to direct the U.S. government to intervene, it has stated that Detroit should restore its water service and only shut off water to those who have the money to pay, but refuse to do so. As of October 20, 2014, there are still roughly 2,300 homes without water.
Check out the Detroit Water Brigade, a volunteer-led alliance seeking to bring emergency relief to Detroit’s residents and advocating under the belief that water is a human right.