UN experts express shock over water shutoffs in Detroit, highlight U.S. international obligations

Demonstrators protest against the Detroit Water and Sewer Department July 18, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan. The Detroit Water and Sewer Department have disconnected water to thousands of Detroit residents who are delinquent with their bills. (AFP Photo / Getty Images / Joshua Lott)

Demonstrators protest against the Detroit Water and Sewer Department July 18, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan. The Detroit Water and Sewer Department have disconnected water to thousands of Detroit residents who are delinquent with their bills. (AFP Photo / Getty Images / Joshua Lott)

A delegation from the United Nations has completed a fact-finding mission to the U.S. city of Detroit, which is currently experiencing large-scale water disconnections, with at least 27,000 households having their water services cut off this year.

The UN delegation, consisting of the Special Rapporteur on housing, Leilani Farha, and the Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, visited Detroit from Oct. 18-20 on the invitation of U.S. civil society groups. Noting that 40.7 percent of Detroit’s population live below the poverty level and about 80 percent of the population are African American, the experts said that the water shutoffs disproportionately affect vulnerable people and low-income African Americans.

“Twenty percent of the population is living on 800 USD or less per month, while the average monthly water bill is currently 70.67 USD,” the delegation pointed out. “This is simply unaffordable for thousands of residents, mostly African Americans.”

As the experts further explained in a press release concluding the visit,

Without water, people cannot live a life with dignity – they have no water for drinking, cooking, bathing, flushing toilets and keeping their clothes and houses clean. Despite the fact that water is essential for survival, the city has no data on how many people have been and are living without tap water, let alone information on age, disabilities, chronic illness, race or income level of the affected population.

Denial of access to sufficient quantity of water threatens the rights to adequate housing, life, health, adequate food, integrity of the family. It exacerbates inequalities, stigmatizes people and renders the most vulnerable even more helpless. Lack of access to water and hygiene is also a real threat to public health as certain diseases could widely spread.

In addition, thousands of households are living in fear that their water may be shut off at any time without due notice, that they may have to leave their homes and that children may be taken by child protection services as houses without water are deemed uninhabitable for children. In many cases, unpaid water bills are being attached to property taxes increasing the risk of foreclosure.

We were deeply disturbed to observe the indignity people have faced and continue to live with in one of the wealthiest countries in the world and in a city that was a symbol of America’s prosperity.

The experts also reminded the United States that it is bound by international human rights law and principles, “including the right to life as well as the right to non-discrimination with respect to housing, water and sanitation and the highest attainable standard of health.” These obligations not only apply to the federal government, but to state and municipal governments as well, including the judiciary.

In September, U.S. bankruptcy judge Steven Rhodes threw out a motion to stop Detroit’s mass water shutoffs, declaring that despite “findings of irreparable harm,” there is no “fundamental enforceable right to free or affordable water.”

“We were shocked, impressed by the proportions of the disconnections and by the way that it is affecting the weakest, the poorest and the most vulnerable,” said de Albuquerque at a press conference on Monday.

“I’ve been to rich countries like Japan and Slovenia where basically 99 percent of population have access to water, and I’ve been to poor countries where half the population doesn’t have access to water … but this large-scale retrogression or backwards steps is new for me.” She added, “From a human rights perspective, any retrogression should be seen as a human right violation.”

As the delegation’s joint statement elaborates:

The human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation and to adequate housing both derive from the right to an adequate standard of living which is protected under, inter alia, article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which is fully applicable to the United States. In addition, adequate housing and access to safe water are clearly essential to maintain life and health, and the right to life is found in treaties the United States has ratified, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Ensuring freedom from discrimination does not mean that everyone should be treated equally when their circumstances are different. Water and sanitation does not have to be free. It must rather be affordable for all. The price cannot put a household in debt or limit access to essential services such as food or medicine. A human rights framework provides that people should not be deprived of these rights if they cannot pay the bill for reasons beyond their control. Disconnections of water due to non-payment are permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying. When people are genuinely unable to pay the bill, it is the State’s obligation to provide urgent measures, including financial assistance, a specially low tariff or subsidies, to ensure access to essential water and sanitation for all. Not doing so amounts to a human rights violation.

Similarly, the human right to adequate housing means that housing must be affordable, including the costs of water, sanitation and other housing-related services. Houses without water and sanitation are unsafe and uninhabitable. They expose residents to disease, exacerbate existing health conditions, and threaten the security of tenure of residents. If costs associated with housing are not in line with income levels, housing is rendered unaffordable for many low-income residents, leading to accumulated arrears which in turn create real risks for foreclosure, eviction and homelessness. This contravenes the State’s obligation to ensure tenants and owners enjoy secure tenure.

The UN officials offered a number of recommendations to the City of Detroit and other relevant authorities, calling for Detroit to “restore water connections to residents unable to pay and vulnerable groups of people, stop further disconnections of water when residents are unable to pay, and provide them the opportunity to seek assistance that must be made available through social assistance schemes.”

Further, the U.S. should adopt, at all levels of government, a mandatory affordability threshold and specific policies should be adopted to ensure specific support to people who live in poverty.

In addition, the federal government should immediately undertake an investigation into the water shutoffs to determine if they are having a disproportionate impact on African Americans and other groups protected against discrimination.

For the full statement and list of recommendations, visit the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights web page.

Testimonies from residents of Detroit coping with the effects of the water shutoffs are available here.

Video of the delegation’s post-visit press conference is on YouTube:

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2 responses to “UN experts express shock over water shutoffs in Detroit, highlight U.S. international obligations”

  1. Leona M. says :

    The late Professor Ahmad Rahman (1951-2015) speaks on Detroit Water Issue and Historical “Right Action Organizing” on July 30, 2015 – (Approx. 5 mins)… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dxthGCmXRyw&feature=youtu.be

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