Detroit Water Fight: Activists Ask United Nations To Declare Service A Basic Human Right

Tara Dodrill

Nearly half of Detroit water customers cannot pay their bills, so they are turning to the United Nations for help. Activists on the Detroit People's Water Board are now lobbying the UN to declare access to water service a basic human right to ensure that those who can't or merely don't pay their water bills continue access to the flowing liquid when they turn on their faucets.

Detroit water department representative Curtrise Garner had this to say about the United Nations basic human right to water service argument:

"We do have programs that do help those that are just totally in need; can't afford it — but we also know that there are also people who can't afford it would cannot pay and we know this because, once we shut water off, the next day they are in paying the bill in full. So we do know that that has become a habit as well. At the DWSD Department — it's not our goal to shut off water. We want people's water on, just like they do; but you do have to pay for your water…That's the bottom line."

A group of activists filed a report about the water shutoff notices with the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights asking the entity to intervene. The document given to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation claims that the Detroit Water and Sewer District (DWSD) "crackdown" on delinquent customer is part of an overall effort to "sweeten the pot for a private investor" to garner control of the Michigan city's water and sewer system. The DWSD is mired in debt and could likely be impacted by the Detroit's bankruptcy proceedings.

Detroit water and sewer rates have reportedly doubled in the past 10 years. During this same time period the poverty rate in the city has also risen about 40 percent. The Detroit water human rights activists feel these statistics indicate that maintaining running water has become an impossibility for thousands of area families. As of March, 50 percent of the Detroit Water and Sewage Department were delinquent. The 323,900 water accounts amount to $175 million in unpaid bills. Since April, water service has been shut off to approximately 7,000 customers.

The activists is asking the United Nations to inform the United States government that it is in violation of the human right to water. National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians, a "key member" of the activist group who helped author the UN claim, said, "If the U.S. government does not respond appropriately this will also impact their Universal Periodic Review when they stand before the Human Rights Council to have their record evaluated." The Detroit People's Water Board claims that the city is playing favorites and not shutting off delinquent commercial customers at the same rate as residential ones.

The DWSD contends that such claims are untrue and noted that any customer who is 60 days in arrears of $150 behind are getting a shutoff notice. The Detroit Water and Sewer District is has about $5 billion in debt and has reportedly been the most difficult aspect of the city's bankruptcy.

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