It all began with the bankruptcy of the city of Detroit, officially filed last year on July 18, the largest of its kind in U.S. history. The city, once known as the capital of automobile industry, suffered, like many other cities in the US and all over the world, the effects of the economic crisis, together with an unprecedented depopulation. Between 2000 and 2010 the city’s population fell by 25 percent, changing its ranking from the nation’s 10th largest city to the 18th. In 2013, the city had a population of 701,000, more than a 60 percent drop down from a peak population of over 1.8 million at the 1950 census, indicating a serious and long-running decline of Detroit’s economic strength.
This serious disproportion between a city – with its infrastructures and services – built for a much larger population and the actual abandonment and tremendous poverty (nearly 40 percent of residents now live below the federal poverty line), created ground for a terrible choice: as part of its “money-generating scheme” and cutting debt strategy, the Detroit City Council backed the decision by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to disconnect water services from households which have not paid bills in the past two months.
DWSD states that nearly half of its customers haven’t been paying their water bills leaving the public utility with some $90 million in debt: though the decision to cut off water to around 3,000 customers per week since last June. As a result, some 27,000 households have had their water services disconnected so far this year, left without water to drink, cook and basic sanitation.
Activists in Detroit had appealed to the UN for assistance in stopping the practice in the city, claiming also that the increasing in water rates, justified by the DWSD with higher costs of leakage in ageing pipes, worsened the situation.
The answer by the UN came on October 20, at the end of a two-day visit to Detroit by the Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, and the Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Adequate Housing, Leilani Farha.
“It is contrary to human rights to disconnect water from people who simply do not have the means to pay their bills,” said Ms. de Albuquerque.
The press release pointed out that due to high poverty and unemployment rates, relatively expensive water bills in Detroit are unaffordable for a significant portion of the population, especially the “most vulnerable and poorest” of the city’s population which were being disproportionately affected, including a predominant number of African Americans. In addition, the experts noted, repeated cases of gross errors on water bills have been reported which are also used as a ground for disconnections.
For her part, Ms. Farha voiced alarm at testimonies of people stating that they had been charged from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s “infrastructure deficiencies,” including leakages, as well as the utility’s “lack of competence in dealing with errors in billing or requests for assistance.” Moreover, many residents were not provided with advance warning before their water was shut off and were left without any possibility for administrative recourse.
“In practice, people have no means to prove the errors and hence the bills are impossible to challenge,” Ms. de Albuquerque declared, adding that “the indignity suffered by people whose water was disconnected is unacceptable.”
In particular, Ms. de Albuquerque cited the case of a woman whose water had been cut and whose teenage daughters had to wash themselves with a bottle of water during menstruation. In other instances, she continues, she heard pregnant mothers who feared losing their child because their water was shut off; heads of household who feared losing access to water without any prior notice; others who feared receiving unaffordable and arbitrary water bills.
“Every effort should be made by all levels of government to ensure that the most vulnerable are not evicted from or lose their housing as a result of water shut-offs or water bill arrears,” Ms. Farha concluded.
“The fact that the city is in such a [financial] situation doesn’t exempt it from human rights obligations” Albuquerque added.
Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for Detroit’s Mayor Mike Duggan says the mayor is disappointed by the U.N. report.
In practice, the U.N. does not have the authority to order the city of Detroit to end its water shutoff program nor can it direct the U.S. government to intervene. They hope to work with city and federal officials to seek a solution.