Is Water a Human Right in Detroit?

Feeley, Dianne

Publisher:  Against the Current
Date Written:  01/09/2014
Year Published:  2014  
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX20796

Feeley examines the questionable actions of the Detroit Water and Sewage Department's recent decision to shut-off the water of residents with outstanding bills, a process that penalizes the large portion of the population that is low-income in a city that is undergoing bankruptcy.



This March the water department had ordered an aggressive campaign to shut off service to residents who owed $150 or were more than 60 days behind on paying their bills. Since the DWSD laid off thousands of workers, it was in no shape to organize the campaign but signed a two-year, $5.6 million contract with Homrich Inc. to turn off -- or on -- city water.

While almost 40% of city residents meet the official designation for living in poverty and 30% are unemployed, over the last decade water bills increased by nearly 120%. The City Council recently raised the rate another 8.7% starting this July. Nonetheless the water department set a goal of shutting off 3,000 residential customers each week.

By mid-July 17,000 households had been disconnected, affecting approximately 46,000 people. And when a household lacks running water, Child Protective Services can move in and remove the children.

Of those disconnected, DWSD boasted that approximately 55% were reconnected within 24 hours. But it also warned those disconnected that they would be treated harshly if they "illegally" reconnected their water. The first offense was to be a $250 fine, rising by the third offense to $660.

The People's Water Board, a coalition of organizations that has tracked the DWSD's policies over the years, publicized Orr's directives and subsequent water shutoffs. They set up water stations in neighborhoods and a hot line for people to call. They organized pickets at the water department and contacted both the media and organizations in other cities. They wrote to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, to president Barack Obama and to secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell at the U.S. Department of Public Services.

Several organizations, including Detroit Eviction Defense, fanned out into neighborhoods to give residents information about how to get water with or without being reconnected.

By June 25 the UN High Commission issued a press release stating that 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."
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