After Detroit turned off water for thousands of residents, activists are calling on the United Nations for help in what they've called a "massive human rights atrocity."
The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department said in March that they would begin shutting off service to more than 150,000 customers who were behind in their bills, according to the Detroit Free Press. With 323,000 total customers, nearly half are late on their bills, or cannot afford water. A water department report states the utility sent 44,000 warnings in April and 3,000 customers have had their water shut off.
A coalition of groups including the Detroit People's Water Board, Food and Water Watch, Blue Planet Project and Michigan Welfare Rights Organization submitted a report to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation last week, saying they are "outraged about the violation of the human right to water and sanitation in the City of Detroit and call on the authorities to take immediate action to restore water services and stop further cut-offs."
They detailed the challenges faced by residents without water, difficulties working with the department to keep or restore water, and spiraling bills -- Detroit rates are higher than national averages, and city lawmakers just approved a rate increase of 9 percent. The coalition also claimed some people had not received shut-off warnings:
The Detroit People’s Water Board is hearing directly from people impacted by the water cut-offs who say they were given no warning and had no time to fill buckets, sinks and tubs before losing access to water. In some cases, the cut-offs occurred before the deadline given in notices sent by the city. 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...
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.
Water department spokeswoman Curtrise Garner told CBS Detroit there are there are programs for people in need, and also said that some customers don't pay out of "habit" rather than inability.
“At the DWAS Department -- it’s not our goal to shut off water," Garner told the news station. "We want people’s water on, just like they do; but you do have to pay for your water… That’s the bottom line.”
There are several helpful options for Detroiters -- about 40 percent of whom are below the poverty line -- like WAVE, a non-profit that works with the water department to offer emergency assistance for those who can't pay their water bills.
In their report, activists recommend that the city restore service to households without water, abandon plans for further cut-offs and implement fair water rates for the city.
A United Nations FAQ on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation states that "the price of sanitation and water services must be affordable for all without compromising the ability to pay for other essential necessities guaranteed by human rights such as food, housing and health care."
The shut-off effort was meant to collect $118 million from delinquent residential and commercial customers as the city seeks to settle billions in debts to creditors through municipal bankruptcy, with the water system one of the major sticking points in bankruptcy agreements. The department collected an additional $400,000 in April compared to years past.
The report links the water department's practices to the bankruptcy, calling it a "last-ditch attempt to make up lost revenues" and saying they fear authorities "want to sweeten the pot for a private investor by imposing even more of the costs of the system on those least able to bear them."
They also allege the department has inequitable practices, and is not targeting delinquent commercial customers to the same extent as residents. The water department has denied that claim.