Posted by: africanpressorganization | 21 October 2014

Detroit’s water shut-offs target the poor, vulnerable and African Americans


Detroit’s water shut-offs target the poor, vulnerable and African Americans


NEW YORK, October 21, 2014/African Press Organization (APO)/ — The unprecedented scale of water shut-offs taking place in Detroit is disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable and poorest, most of whom are African American, two United Nations human rights experts have warned today. So far this year over 27,000 residences have had water services disconnected.


At the end of a three-day visit to Detroit*, the UN Special Rapporteurs on the human right to water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, and on the right to adequate housing, Leilani Farha, stressed that all decisions that affect access to water and to adequate housing for residents of Detroit should be guided by human rights.


“It is contrary to human rights to disconnect water from people who simply do not have the means to pay their bills,” Ms. de Albuquerque said. “I heard testimonies from poor, African American residents of Detroit who were forced to make impossible choices – to pay the water bill or to pay their rent.”


The utility has passed on the increased costs of leakages due to an aging infrastructure onto all remaining residents in Detroit by increasing water rates by 8.7 percent.


“This, combined with the decreased number of customers, and increased unemployment rate, has made water bills increasingly unaffordable to thousands of residents in Detroit living under the poverty line,” she noted. “In addition, repeated cases of gross errors on water bills have been reported, which are also used as a ground for disconnections. In practice, people have no means to prove the errors and hence the bills are impossible to challenge.”


“Tenants and owners are living with such stress and uncertainty, fearing they won´t be able to pay their water bill and will eventually be evicted or suffer foreclosure,” Ms. Farha said. “Such situations go against internationally recognized human rights standards.”


The Special Rapporteurs noted that measures taken so far, including the Mayor’s 10 Point Plan, have not been of assistance to those who are chronically poor and face water shut-offs. More worryingly, the city has no data on how many people have been and are living without tap water, let alone information on age, disabilities, chronic illness, race or income level of the affected population.


In that regard, the experts called for the establishment of a mandatory federal water and sewerage affordability standard. In addition, they said, “special policies and tailored support for people in particularly vulnerable circumstances must be introduced.”


“The indignity suffered by people whose water was disconnected is unacceptable,” Ms. de Albuquerque stressed. “A woman whose water had been cut explained that her teenage daughters had to wash themselves with a bottle of water during menstruation, and had to refrain from flushing the toilet to save water.”


“I also listened to numerous stories of fear: mothers who fear losing their children because their water was shut off; heads of households who fear losing access to water without any prior notice; others who fear receiving unaffordable and arbitrary water bills,” the expert added.


“I heard repeated testimonies of people stating that they had been charged for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s infrastructure deficiencies, including leakages, and also the utility’s lack of competence in dealing with errors in billing or requests for assistance,” Ms. Farha said.


“I am alarmed by the fact that many residents were not provided with any advance notice before their water was shut off and there seems to be no administrative or legal remedies for disputed bills and water disconnections,” she added.


“The City of Detroit should restore water connections to residents unable to pay and to vulnerable groups of people including persons with disabilities, the chronically ill, and households with small children”, stressed Ms. de Albuquerque.


“Every effort should be made by all levels of government to ensure that the most vulnerable are not evicted from or lose their housing as a result of water shut-offs or water bill arrears. Where an individual or family is rendered homeless due to water shut-offs, the city of Detroit must have in place emergency services to ensure alternate accommodation with running water is available”, stated Ms. Farha.


The Special Rapporteurs recalled that the United States is bound by international human rights law, including the right to life as well as the right to non-discrimination concerning housing, water and sanitation and the highest attainable standard of health.


“These obligations apply to all levels of Government – federal, state and municipal,” Ms. de Albuquerque and Ms. Farha underscored.


(*) Check the full end-of-visit statement:



United Nations – Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)


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