June 25, 2014 – The City of Detroit is violating the human rights of its citizens by disconnecting water services from those unable to pay bills, three independent UN human rights experts said on Wednesday.
The city’s Water and Sewerage Department has shut off thousands of households who have not paid their water rates for two months and the process has accelerated in recent weeks with 30,000 homes expected to lose water by the end of the summer.
“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,” said Catarina de Albuquerque, the expert on the human right to water and sanitation.
Water rates in Detroit, which declared bankruptcy in 2013, have risen 120 percent in the past decade and it is estimated that almost half of all households cannot afford to pay their water bills – which are also much higher than the national average.
The human rights experts also expressed concern that water shutoffs are primarily affecting African-American homes and may violate international treaties signed by the United States and are calling on the Federal government to step in to restore water services.
“When I conducted an official country mission to the US in 2011, I encouraged the US Government to adopt a federal minimum standard on affordability for water and sanitation and a standard to provide protection against disconnections for vulnerable groups and people living in poverty,” said Leilani Farha, the special rapporteur on the human right to adequate housing.
Under international human rights law, it is a state’s obligation to to ensure access to essential water and sanitation. “The households which suffered unjustified disconnections must be immediately reconnected,” the experts said in their joint statement.
– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz