Friday, June 27, 2014

U.N. declares Detroit's water shutoffs a human rights violation

I haven't written here about Detroit's water system since I posted Detroit Regional Water Authority talks in the news in January.  It turns I should have, as the water system is one of the sticking points in dealing with Detroit's bankruptcy.  One of the actions taken as a result has become big news, as WXYZ reports in City of Detroit shutting off water to thousands for lack of payment.

WXYZ did a fairly good job of summarizing the story, complete with quotes from both activists and the water department, as well as pointing out that the United Nations had become involved.  That written, it doesn't go into many of the details, including the actual finding of the U.N.  Follow over the jump for perspectives on the situation from The Huffington Post and the Detroit Free Press.

First, HuffPo reports United Nations Says Turning Off Poor Detroiters' Water Violates Human Rights.
Detroit's been shutting off water to customers who reportedly can't afford to pay their bills, and United Nations experts said Wednesday it's a violation of human rights.

The UN responded after a coalition of activist groups submitted a report to its Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner last week, detailing water shutoffs and extreme consequences for families in the city who can't afford to pay their bills and have had to go without water. Detroit's Water and Sewerage Department began shutting off water to customers who were behind on payments this spring, cutting service for 3,000 in April and 4,500 in May. Around 45,000 shutoff warnings were sent each month.

Three UN experts criticized the department's aggressive practice Wednesday, saying in a press release that stopping access to water for those who can't afford to pay "constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights."

“Disconnections due to non-payment are only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying," said Catarina de Albuquerque, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation. "In other words, when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections."
Leilani Farha, UN Special Rapporteur who focuses on housing and standards of living, said in a statement that "if these water disconnections disproportionately affect African Americans they may be discriminatory, in violation of treaties the U.S. has ratified."
The Detroit Free Press was equally appalled in its editorial Why Detroit water shutoffs are not an open-and-shut case.
A fiasco, an outrage, a budding humanitarian crisis, a community health risk, shortsighted, atrocious public policy — take your pick of terms to describe an aggressive Detroit Water and Sewerage Department campaign to shut off water service to delinquent city customers.

Keep in mind that 38% of Detroiters live in poverty. That per capita income for city residents is $14,861. That the reported unemployment rate is 14.5%. That the water department’s shutoff policy is uncompromising, making no exceptions for households with infant children, elderly or disabled residents.

Then ask yourself how cutting off water to impoverished residents benefits anyone.
The paper then turned that rhetorical question into a real question for Detroit's emergency finanical manager.
Better yet, ask Detroit’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr. His spokesman, Bill Nowling, said the shutoff policy is a necessary part of Detroit’s restructuring.

“No other major city in America has let accounts go delinquent for so long,” Nowling said. “These are difficult decisions. ... We have to run the system so it runs for everybody; when we don’t collect the bills, it doesn’t run well. We have a plan in place for lower-income people, or people who have trouble paying their bills to get on a payment plan, so I don’t think you can say we’re callous about the plight of lower-income residents.”
I'm not so sure about that.  I agree with the conclusion of the Free Press's editorial.
It’s hard to say what will happen next. Neither the city nor the water department have evinced any signs they’ll recalibrate ill-conceived policy shift, and without direction from Orr or his boss, Gov. Rick Snyder, it’s likely shutoffs will continue — while Detroiters’ health and quality of life hang in the balance.
I recommend you read the rest of the editorial, along with the Al Jazeera America report UN panel: Detroit water cutoffs violate human rights.

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