Monday, July 6, 2020

Municipalities Announce that Water Shutoffs Will Resume, in Violation of Human Rights

Earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, many local water authorities and some states adopted a moratorium on water shut-offs. This was not forgiveness, by any means, and bills have continued to accumulate, but shut-offs were suspended. During the pandemic, households would be able to wash their hands, cook at home, and practice basic hygiene.

That forbearance is coming to an end in many communities. 

In recent days, despite the resurgence of COVID-19 in most states, municipal authorities from Fort Worth to Juneau and many places in between have announced that water shut-offs will start once again.

Some households will be in a position to negotiate payment plans for the months owed -- plans that may stretch on for years.  But as water prices rise nationwide, and individuals deal with the job loss and economic stress of the pandemic, many households will simply not be able to cover all of their household expenses, including water. Along with the anticipated increase in evictions later this  year, large-scale water shutoffs will ensue.

Shutting off water to households that are unable to afford to pay is a clear human rights violation.  As the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Water observed in a recent report on water affordability, "Where people face an inability to pay, the human rights framework indeed requires free services that must be financed through sources other than user contributions."

Yet across the country, this human rights violation, which jeopardizes human dignity and health, is a routine exercise of bureaucratic discretion.

It is time that the human right to water be recognized in the US, and that municipal and state water policies are drafted to recognize that right.

Rather than return to the pre-pandemic status quote (while the pandemic still rages!), the COVID-19 moratoria should be extended and used as a basis for re-thinking harmful water shut-off policies.

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