United Nations warns Detroit over water cut-off

June 27, 2014

United Nations experts warned the city of Detroit on June 26 that service cut-offs could constitute a violation of the human right to water.

Several groups concerned about Detroit residents who had their water shut off for nonpayment had taken the unusual step of appealing to the UN for support in an effort to force the restoration of services.

The groups sent a letter to the UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner saying that mass water shut-offs were leaving poor people and families at risk in the city, which is attempting to emerge from the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history.

Catarina de Albuquerque, a human right to water and sanitation expert in Genva, said: “Disconnections due to non-payment are only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying.

“In other words, when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbid disconnections.”

The US has signed, but not ratified, many of the relevant treaties on the right to safe water access.

Blue Planet Project, Food and Water Watch, Detroit People's Water Board and the Michigan Welfare Rights Organisation were the groups that wrote to the UN. They are also concerned about possible privatisation of the water department, which is responsible for about US$6 billion of the city's $18 billion debt and is one of the major issues in the bankruptcy.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department had said it would be more assertive toward delinquent customers. About 46,000 cut-off notices were sent out in May, with service to 4500 customers cut in recent weeks.

However, more than half of those paid the accounts in full within a day or two. Another 17,000 are on payment plans. But about 90,000 customers still have unpaid bills to the tune of about $90 million.

Detroit People's Water Board member Tom Stevens said the groups had approached the UN hoping to get “international legal recognition of the violation of human rights”.

Their letter calls on the city to restore water services immediately and abandon any further cut-offs.

[Reprinted from Morning Star.]

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