Detroit water cutoffs for unpaid bills a human rights issue, U.N. says

Detroit utility workers shut off the water to an abandoned home in Detroit.
Detroit utility workers shut off the water to an abandoned home in Detroit.
(Carlos Osorio / Associated Press)

Detroit is violating the human rights of residents by cutting off their water service because they have not paid their bills, a United Nations expert on water and sanitation said Wednesday, responding to a petition from city nonprofit organizations protesting the large-scale water shutoffs.

“When there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections,” said Catarina de Albuquerque, a Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation at the U.N.

The city warned in March that it would begin cutting off water service of up to 3,000 customers each week because nearly half of the accounts in Detroit were delinquent. And this month, the City Council approved an 8.7% water rate increase to help get the municipal utility on stronger financial footing.


The June petition, by Blue Planet Project, Food and Water Watch, the Detroit People’s Water Board and the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, calls on the city to restore water service to those who have been cut off and who will be cut off. Detroit’s Water Department is a public utility, the nonprofits argue, and thus should not be able to deny residents access to running water even if bills go unpaid.

“People are shocked that this is happening in the United States,” said Meera Karunananthan, international water campaigner for Blue Planet Project. “There should be safeguards to prevent people from losing access to basic services.”

The nonprofits submitted the report to three special rapporteurs: Leilani Farha, for adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living; Philip Alston, for extreme poverty and human rights; and De Albuquerque.

The U.N. has little legal footing on this subject, however, and it’s not likely that the organization would step in and provide water for Detroit citizens, or pressure the city to do so. But the fact that the U.N. has weighed in could help draw attention to the water shutoffs, Karunananthan said.

“It’s about shaming the U.S. government internationally for what’s going on,” she said.

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