In Detroit, MI, water shut-offs have become extremely common in homes due to failure to pay the bill. Over the past several months, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has been disconnecting water services from around 3,000 customers per week. These customers are ones who have not paid their water bills in two months. It is estimated at this point that some 30,000 households have had their water services disconnected due to failure to pay. While this may seem like a justifiable response to the problem of people not paying their bills, it is important to note that often, people do not pay their water bills because they cannot afford to pay them. The UN’s initial response on the issue was that “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.” Thus, the inability to pay and water services being shut off triggers a human rights issue that must be approached as such. While the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has the right to be paid for services provided, every person has the basic human right to water, which must be protected above all else.
Two UN officials recently visited Detroit to conduct an informal fact-finding mission into the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s water shut-offs.and interviewed a number of residents of the city. These UN officials “expressed concern that the shutoffs threatened residents’ human right to water and, in a city where the population is more than 80 percent African-American, could constitute discrimination under international law.” UN rapporteur Catarina de Albuquerque, rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, stated at a press conference, “We were shocked, impressed by the proportions of the disconnections and by the way that it is affecting the weakest, the poorest and the most vulnerable . . . this large-scale retrogression or backwards steps is new for me. From a human rights perspective, any retrogression should be seen as a human right violation.” Because these water shut offs are having a disproportionately higher effect on minority populations, they are in clear violation of treaties the U.S. has ratified. Thus, water shut offs have very serious human rights implications, and elevating this issue as a human rights issue is an effective approach to bringing attention to and rectifying the situation. In response to the Detroit water crisis, Sharda Sekaran, co-founder of the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, has expressed disbelief that residents in Detroit are being forced to fight for access to water. Her reaction to the situation is that “the water crisis in Detroit is a wake-up call. The list of shockingly basic resources that Americans are forced to fight for continues to grow. We must all take stock and demand a halt to the erasure of our basic human rights.”
It is important to note that that when water services are turned off, there is a domino effect that implicates more than just the human right to water. An expert has commented that as a result of water shut offs, “children are being removed by social services from their families and homes because, without access to water, their housing is no longer considered adequate.” In fact, many residents are worried about their custody rights being affected because having no running water is grounds for the city’s child protective services to remove children. Water shut offs can, clearly, have devastating effects on families and traumatize children. Theresa Clayton, a third-grade teacher in the Detroit Public School system, is required to report students without water to child protective services and has told her students, “If you do not have water, you cannot tell me … because the people will come get you.” Interestingly, “a school board member said that one high school principal has begun to open the school at five a.m. so that the students could shower and wash their clothes.” But the water shut offs have even more serious health implications. As flu season is setting in, there is great concern about “the sanitation and public health crisis that could arise form the lack of access to water.”
Although the UN is involved in the Detroit water shut off and is deeply disturbed due to the water shut offs’ complete disregard of basic human rights, federal U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes ruled on Lyda v. City of Detroit in late September that “he lacked authority to issue a restraining order against ending service to delinquent water customers.” His ruling found “no constitutional right to water service and agreed with city assertions that a moratorium would encourage more people not to pay their bills, leading to potentially large drops in revenue at a crucial time for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.” A key factor in his decision was the financial hardship facing the City of Detroit, given the city’s bankruptcy and great need for revenue. However, the UN disagrees completely with this argument. The UN rapporteurs have said that “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” and “the city is still bound by international human rights law despite the municipal bankruptcy and being under the rule of an appointed emergency manager.” This ruling “leaves poor families, children and elderly people at risk of health problems in the nation’s poorest big city.”
As a result of their visit to Detroit to assess the situation, the UN rapporteurs “issued a series of recommendations to city, state and federal officials, including that the city immediately resume water service for residents who cannot pay.” One such recommendation was the “establishment of a mandatory federal water and sewerage affordability standard along with the introduction of special policies and tailored support for people in particularly vulnerable circumstances.” It is clear, both from a moral standpoint and because the UN has become involved in the situation, that something must be done immediately in Detroit to rectify this gross disregard for the basic human right to water.