UN: Detroit Water Cutoffs May Violate Human Rights

Steve Pardo, Detroit News, June 25, 2014

United Nations experts said Wednesday that Detroit’s decision to cut off water to residents who haven’t paid their bills may violate international human rights.

The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights put out a press release from Geneva citing three experts in response to reports that the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is cutting off water access to thousands of residents in the city.

“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,” said Catarina de Albuquerque, identified as an expert on the human right to water and sanitation.

“Disconnections due to non-payment are only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying. In other words, when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections.”

The U.N. experts said international human rights law requires governments to take urgent measures, including financial assistance, to ensure access to essential water and sanitation.

“The households which suffered unjustified disconnections must be immediately reconnected,” the U.N. statement said.

The U.N. opinions were based on the assumption that mostly low-income customers are being targeted. But the accusation that the Detroit water department is targeting poor customers isn’t true, said Curtrise Garner, a department spokeswoman.

“We are seeking payments for our delinquent water and sewerage accounts,” Garner said Tuesday.

A coalition of welfare rights groups that appealed this week to the United Nations to assist Detroit residents about stopping the water shut-offs welcomed the comments of the UN’s experts. {snip}

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In March, the utility announced it was starting a campaign to target tens of thousands of Detroiters with balances more than $150 overdue or more than two months behind on their payments. Half of the nearly 324,000 water and sewerage accounts are overdue, according to the department.

The company put out 46,000 shut-off notices this spring. Shut-offs, so far, have totaled about 4,500, according to the department.

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