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Water is a Human Right: Detroit Residents Seek U.N. Intervention as City Shuts Off Taps to Thousands

Many people have likely heard, by now, about the recent trend in Detroit of turning off water access to thousands of Detroit residents.  My understanding is that Detroit tends to turn off water service to anywhere between 10,000-12,000 homes each year, and are on pace to nearly double that number this year... estimating approximately 20,000 turn-offs by the end of 2014.

This tragic series of events has gained increased attention within the last couple of weeks, with protests by community based advocacy organizations in the city, as well as a campaign to have the United Nations get involved.

The situation has been described as follows in a report prepared by a coalition of advocacy and community groups:

In March 2014, the water and sewer department announced it would begin shutting off water service for 1,500 to 3,000 customers per week.

According to a DWSD document obtained by the Sierra Club, there are more than 179,000 residential water accounts in Detroit. By April 30, 2014, more than 83,000 of them were past due. The average amount owed per household was just over $540.

In a report by the DWSD’s Director, dated May 28, 2014, it is noted there were “44,273 notices sent to customers in April 2014, resulting in 3,025 shut-offs for non-payment.” The water department has said it will turn the water off to all residences that owe money by the end of the summer.

In a phone conversation, city spokesperson Greg Eno confirmed that the city would be ramping up cut-offs to 3,000 residents per week starting June 2. The city would not confirm exact figures over the phone of how many people in Detroit are without water, and did not respond to a follow-up email request.

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.

The MWRO is working with people who have been affected by the crisis. According to the MWRO, mass water shut-offs began in April. The organization estimates that as many as 30,000 households will have had water shut off over the next few months.

Indeed, the United Nations has weighed in, stating that these recent and increasingly frequent actions in Detroit are inhumane, and violate international human rights guidelines.

“Disconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights,” the U.N. officials said in a news release. “Because of a high poverty rate and a high unemployment rate, relatively expensive water bills in Detroit are unaffordable for a significant portion of the population.”

This is an absolute travesty!  What worries me more, however, than the reality of what's happening in Detroit, is that most people appear to be unaffected by it.  What does it say about our collective humanity when we take these kinds of actions in stride, and process these stories like any other news story?  It says that we are collectively so numb to human suffering that anything goes, as long as it doesn't affect us directly.

This is what scares me about the world we live in today... the fact that so little of the tragic and inhumane things we see and hear about on a regular basis actually bothers us enough to speak out.

People, this is not OK!

Democracy Now - Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Activists in Detroit have appealed to the United Nations over the city’s move to shut off the water of thousands of residents. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department says half of its 323,000 accounts are delinquent and has begun turning off the taps of those who do not pay bills that total above $150 or that are 60 days late. Since March, up to 3,000 account holders have had their water cut off every week. The Detroit water authority carries an estimated $5 billion in debt and has been the subject of privatization talks. In a submission to the United Nations special rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, activists say Detroit is trying to push through a private takeover of its water system at the expense of basic rights. We speak to Maureen Taylor of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and Meera Karunananthan, international water campaigner for the Blue Planet Project.