Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Human Right to Water in Detroit

Is Detroit violating basic human rights?  Several media outlets reported in recent days that the city of Detroit is taking steps to turn off the water supply of tens of thousands of delinquent customers. The media may have only just picked it up, but this story is not new.  More than a year ago, in April 2013, the Georgetown Law Human Rights Institute published Tapped Out: Threats to the Human Right to Water in the Urban United States.  Focusing on high water rates in Detroit and Boston, the report indicated that mass water shut-offs in Detroit extended back as far as 2003.  According to the report, "[i]n the past decade, [Detroit's] population has fallen by 25 percent and large areas lie vacant.With fewer ratepayers contributing to maintain water infrastructure, DWSD [Detroit Water and Sewerage Department]  has increased rates to compensate for lost revenue. The result has been an acute affordability crisis with tens of thousands of Detroit residents experiencing water shutoffs for inability to pay."

When the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation visited the U.S. in 2011, she was particularly critical of discrimination in access to clean drinking water and sanitation. The U.S. contested aspects of her report, asserting that she had based her findings on a few anecdotes rather than substantial data.

Now, the Special Rapporteur will have the opportunity to revisit the right to water in the U.S., since a coalition of groups, including the Blue Planet Project, the Food & Water Watch, the Detroit People's Water Board, and the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization have filed a complaint with the U.N. Special Rapporteur.  These groups allege that Detroit's water policy violates human rights, and that the city is engaged in "a ploy to drive poor people of color out of the city to facilitate gentrification."

In the past, the UN Special Rapporteur has not shied away from criticizing local policies when important rights to water and sanitation are at stake. Detroit (and the U.S. government, which is ultimately responsible for local human rights compliance) should take note and expect international fall-out should the complaints of mass water cut-offs be borne out.  And Boston, which was singled out in the Rapporteur's 2011 report and also in the Georgetown study for high water rates and discriminatory policies, should start taking serious steps to ward off similar criticisms. 


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