As Detroit Shuts Off Water To Thousands, Activists Ask UN To Intervene

| by Jared Keever

A coalition of activists have called on the United Nations to intervene in the city of Detroit’s decision to begin shutting off water service for those who cannot pay their bills.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, or DWSD, announced in March that it would begin shutting off water service to as many as 3,000 homes and businesses per week in an effort to keep the department from falling even deeper into debt. In the past two months, the DWSD has shut off water service to over 7,500 properties.

Last week local nonprofit Detroit People’s Water Board, Food and Water Watch and Canada-based Blue Planet Project sent a letter to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation asking the body to put pressure on the local and federal government to provide relief to those in need.

"What we see is a violation of the human right to water," Meera Karunananthan, of the Blue Planet Project, told Al-Jazeera America. "The U.S. has international obligations in terms of people’s right to water, and this is a blatant violation of that right. We’re hoping the U.N. will put pressure on the federal government and the state of Michigan to do something about it.”

Half of Detroit’s population is behind on their water bills, according to CBS News-Detroit. That number represents about $118 million in unpaid bills. In order to recover some of that money, the city council recently voted to raise water and sewerage rates by 8.7 percent or approximately $5 per month. 

Councilwoman Mary Sheffield voted against the increase and told the Detroit Free Press that raising rates during a time when people are struggling was a bad idea. 

“I don’t feel that residents should have to bear the burden of an increase right now,” she said.

The groups that sent the letter to the U.N. believe the utility is charging high rates to the city’s residents — its poorest customers — in order to drive delinquent customers away. By doing so, the utility would be more attractive for a private takeover. DWSD said that is not why they are raising rates or shutting off service.

"We really don't want to shut off anyone’s water, but it’s really our duty to go after those who don’t pay, because if they don’t pay then our other customers pay for them," DWSD spokeswoman Curtrise Garner, said. "That’s not fair to our other customers.”

But city officials have acknowledged that, at least, a partial private takeover of the utility is being considered. 

Activists argue that the utility continues to raise rates, driving poor families from the city by depriving them of water. They point out that rates for water have doubled in the past decade. The average water bill in Detroit is about $75 per month. The national average is about $40 per month.

Sources: Al-Jazeera America, CBS News-Detroit, Detroit Free Press