News Feature | July 10, 2014

Detroit Water Shutoffs 'Human Rights Violations' Says UN Experts

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

United Nations experts are calling out Detroit for human rights violations after the city shut off water service for thousands of residents who failed to pay their bills.

"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," the Huffington Post reported.

Detroit People's Water Board and a coalition of environmental and social justice organizations wrote to the United Nations in June saying that authorities must call on Detroit to "respect the human rights to water and sanitation" and "restore services to households that have been cut off immediately."

Now, the United Nations has responded.

"Three UN experts criticized the department's aggressive practice, saying 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,'" the Huffington Post reported.

Catarina de Albuquerque, an expert on human rights and water, shared her concerns in a United Nations press release.

“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,” she said.

The state appears to be investigating the issue.

"The Michigan Department of Human Services is getting involved and trying to provide financial assistance to those who have had their water cutoff. Some calls have come from people concerned about children's welfare," WDIV reported, per Deadline Detroit.

A department spokesperson said to reporters: "We have recently received a large number of requests from people seeking financial assistance to help pay their water bills. We are working to process those requests as quickly as possible. We are also hearing from citizens concerned about children living in conditions without water and we are investigating these cases."