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Detroit — The line of lighted boards that nearly 20 activists held up Tuesday on Woodward Avenue spelled out a message they say bears repeating: "Water is a human right."

The demonstrators gathered outside Central United Methodist Church on International Human Rights Day to demand a stop to ongoing water shutoffs in the city, which they say deprive residents of a necessity.

"We want to get the message out that water is a human right," said Sister Mary Ellen Howard, a nun who is active with the People's Water Board Coalition, one of the organizers.

"Imagine a Christmas without water on in your home. You can't wash your food, you can't clean your house, you can't clean your clothes, you can't take a bath, you can't flush your toilet."

Advocacy groups have long criticized city water official's controversial moves to stop water for delinquent customers. They cite United Nations experts in 2014 asking Detroit to end the crackdown amid the city's financial crisis and seek a moratorium until a true affordability plan was secured.

Since 2016, more than 25,000 Detroit water customers have been evaluated for the Water Residential Assistance Program, or WRAP, a regional assistance fund created as a component of the Great Lakes Water Authority, forged through Detroit's bankruptcy.

The water department has said service interruptions for nonpayment have dropped 44% since 2014, when 50,000 were at risk and 28,500 accounts were turned off. In 2018, 59,000 customers were at risk and 16,000 cut off.

In September, 9,872 city water customers were notified they were at risk for shutoff. Of those, 3,888 had service interrupted, according to a recent water interruption summary report.

This fall, city officials said Detroit's water and health departments plan to partner with the University of Michigan on an initiative to send social workers to 70 impoverished households at risk of losing water service in the city's 48234 ZIP code and offer them financial counseling, utility help and other services.

On Tuesday, demonstrators braved freezing temperatures to urge leaders to focus on sweeping measures.

"We need water affordability," said Antonio Rafael of Detroit. "We need a progressive tax structure on water systems so poor people don’t get their water shutoff."

Service interruptions can lead to other problems, Howard said.

"I'm a nurse and I know you need water just to stay alive," she said. "The best way to prevent the spread of infection is hand-washing. If you haven’t got water, you're not washing your hands, and infection will spread and diseases will spread."

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