UN team says Detroit water shutoff program violates human rights

Oct 20, 2014

A United Nations team says the city of Detroit is violating human rights by shutting off water to those who can’t pay their bills.

People upset about Detroit's water shutoff program listen to United Nation's Human Rights Office officials deliver their report.
Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Some 27, 000 customers have had their water cut off during the first nine months of 2014. Detroit launched the water shutoff program as part of efforts to deal with the city’s financial problems.  

But many people complain the shutoffs have been too aggressive and hurt people who just can’t afford to pay their water bills.

Many of them took part in a public meeting Sunday with representatives from the U.N. Office of Human Rights.  

Catarina de Albuquerque is a Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation for the U.N. She’s been in Detroit the past few days to study the city’s tap water situation, which she describes as “a perfect storm.”

Catarina de Albuquerque is a Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation for the United Nations.
Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

She says Detroit’s water shutoffs amount to a violation of basic human rights that falls heaviest on poor and African-Americans.

De Albuquerque says the city’s plan to help people pay their delinquent water bills falls short.  

“We are of the view that such initiatives are insufficient to insure affordability of water and sanitation and adequate housing,” says De Albuquerque.

She adds that Detroit’s bankruptcy is no excuse for failing to provide the water people need to drink, prepare food, and for basic hygiene.

“The fact that the city is in such a situation doesn’t exempt it from human rights obligations,” says De Albuquerque.

A spokeswoman for Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan says the mayor is disappointed by the U.N. report. 

Chief of Staff Alexis Wiley says the UN team met with Mayor Duggan and city officials for two hours.   But Wiley says the UN officials "had reached their conclusions and prepared their recommendations before the meeting even began."

"It’s not fair to force bill paying Detroit residents to pick up the tab for other Detroiters who are not paying their bill," says Wiley, "Our efforts are geared toward helping those who truly need assistance."

Last month, a federal bankruptcy judge declined to stop Detroit’s water shutoff program. Judge Steven Rhodes ruled there is no right to free water and the city couldn’t afford to lose the revenue.  

The U.N. team says Detroit should restore water service and only shut off water to those customers who have the money to pay and just refuse.

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 that will get the tap water flowing again.