United Nations to hear about Detroit, Flint water woes

Joel Kurth
The Detroit News

Water accessibility issues in Michigan are again attracting the attention of the United Nations, which next week will hear testimony about shutoffs in Detroit and the lead contamination of Flint drinking water.

A Detroit-based activist is expected to address a forum of the UN Commission for Social Development’s annual meeting in New York. The international group has 17 global goals for the next 15 years, including access to water.

“All eyes are on Detroit and Flint now: We live in a developed country, developed cities, but we’re living in Third World conditions,” said Beulah Walker, chief coordinator of the Detroit Water Brigade, a nonprofit that delivers bottled water to city residents.

She is scheduled to speak Feb. 2. Another Detroit-based activist, Justin Wedes of Occupy Wall Street, also is expected to attend the event that features numerous topics and dozens of worldwide activists.

Wedes said activists also are seeking an audience with the U.S. Mission to the UN.

“We want to highlight our lack of trust in state and federal government to properly address both the short-term crisis of the Flint water poisoning and Detroit water shutoffs and the long-term effects and solutions,” Wedes said.

The Civil Society Forum comes after an 18-month campaign in Detroit that disconnected service on delinquent accounts and left thousands of residents without water. In Flint, Gov. Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency this month because the drinking water contains unsafe levels of lead.

United Nations experts called on Detroit to end shutoffs in October 2014. In 2015, the city averaged roughly 3,000 shutoffs per month, which city officials say were designed to put residents in payment plans and improve a billing system riddled with inefficiencies.

About 44,000 residential accounts — more than 1 in 5 of all Detroit homes — now are on payment plans that can double monthly bills. The city doesn’t keep records on how many occupied homes remain without water, in large part because so many Detroit homes are vacant.

Analysis of city land records by The Detroit News, though, has estimated that at least 4,000 homes now lack running water. Activists claim the number is closer to 17,000.

“People are wondering what is happening in Detroit and Flint, why are they going through this?” Walker said. “Why has the government put unbearable conditions on them? We are supposed to be rich.”

Sara Burke, a senior policy analyst in New York with the German-based Friedrich-Ebert Foundation, wrote in an email that water remains an issue worldwide. Her foundation is sponsoring Walker’s trip and co-sponsoring the forum.

“One of the things that has incited many protests around the world in recent years is a growing dissatisfaction that governments aren’t providing the services people need,” Burke wrote in an email to The News.

“The right to have clean, safe and affordable water, food, and energy are among the top demands of protests, regardless of the country.”