Access to water may be a human right, but for 40 percent of Detroit residents unable to afford their water bill, that right may soon be denied without international intervention or emergency government assistance.
The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), itself millions of dollars in debt, has begun shutting off water to 3,000 people a week, and could soon cut off access to drinkable water for 150,000 Detroit residents who have failed to pay recent water bills. This despite an acknowledgement by DWSD spokeswoman, Curtrise Garner, that most of those who have not paid simply cannot afford their water bills.
Crippling unemployment, a focus on corporate interests and institutional racism in Detroit are partially to blame, as is the fact that water rates in Detroit are nearly double the national average at $75 per month (as compared with $40 per month for most Americans). In addition, the Detroit City Council just raised the price of water by nine percent, exacerbating an already dire situation.
Things have gotten so bad that a coalition of local activists, under the umbrella organization the Detroit People's Water Board, has petitioned the Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation via a scathing report.
Those who composed the U.N. report hope that pressure will be put both on Detroit officials and on the U.S. government to alleviate this situation. Via Think Progress:
“We are asking the UN special rapporteur to make clear to the U.S. government that it has violated the human right to water,” said Maude Barlow, the National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians and a key member of the coalition that put the report together. In addition to creating international pressure to stop the Detroit shutoffs, Barlow said, the UN’s intervention could lead to formal consequences for the United States. “If the US government does not respond appropriately this will also impact their Universal Periodic Review,” she said, “when they stand before the Human Rights Council to have their [human rights] record evaluated.”Garner, recognizing the untenable situation for citizens who risk not having access to water, admitted that DWSD would be willing to speak with the U.N. about the human rights issue while also holding firm to the city's efforts to collect money from those who clearly cannot pay:
“If they [the U.N.] do contact us we are willing to speak with them,” Garner said, adding, “But we owe it to the customers that are paying to collect from those that aren’t. Somebody has to pay for the water.”Indeed, somebody has to pay for the water. However, to demand that those in poverty who cannot afford Detroit's water bills somehow pay for that water or have their access cut off is not just unreasonable, it's cruel and potentially a human rights violation.
Unless someone steps in to alleviate this situation, whether it's local or federal officials, private interests or the international community, nearly 150,000 American citizens may be without access to water.
In the year 2014.
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, recently published by Oneworld Publications.
Here is Democracy Now's report on this issue: