June 25, 2014 at 10:58 pm

UN: Detroit water cutoffs may violate human rights

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. The groups included the Detroit People’s Water Board, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and Blue Planet Project.

The groups said in a joint statement Wednesday that the city should “immediately restore water to all Detroit residents. Gov. Rick Snyder should also demand that water service is restored for all people in the state. Further, we call on Sen. Carl Levin and Sen. Debbie Stabenow to hold hearings to look into this evolving crisis.”

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.

“DWSD is working closely with its customers in Detroit who are delinquent in their payments to prevent avoidable water shut-offs,” the city agency said in a statement Tuesday. “The department currently has more than 17,000 Detroit customers enrolled into a successful payment plan program that is designed to fit each customer’s financial situation and ability to pay. Next month, the DWSD also plans to launch a new financial assistance program for the city’s indigent population.”

Detroit Water Department Director Sue McCormick said, “Our goal is to have as few shut-offs as possible.”

Despite the city’s defense, U.S. Congressman John Conyers, D-Detroit, denounced the cutoffs in statement released Tuesday evening.

“Draconian water cutoffs are not a pathway to financial solvency,” he said. “To the contrary, actions that deny residents the ability to bathe, hydrate or prepare meals for themselves and their families create costly long-term public health challenges. These water cutoffs are not only inhumane but economically short-sighted.”

Last week, the City Council approved an 8.7 percent hike in water and sewer rates for Detroit customers.

The rate is higher than the average of 4 percent for the systems suburban customers and result, in part, from the increasing number of uncollected bills, the water department has said.

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