UN Rights Agency Comes to Aid of Desperate Detroit Residents
July 1, 2014
N Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights & Anna Lappe / Al Jazeera America
Because of high poverty rates and high unemployment rates, relatively expensive water bills in Detroit are unaffordable for a significant portion of the population. City officials have been disconnection around 3,000 customers per week and some 30,000 households are expected to lose access to water services over the next few months. But water is considered a human right and UN Human Rights officials have taken the side of America's poor, calling on Washington to act swiftly to protect the poor.
UN to Detroit:
Disconnecting Water from Poor People
Who Cannot Afford to Pay Is
An Affront to Human Rights
UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
GENEVA (25 June 2014) -- Three UN experts* on the human rights to water and sanitation, adequate housing, and extreme poverty and human rights expressed concern Wednesday about reports of widespread water disconnections in the US city of Detroit of households unable to pay water bills. "Disconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights," the experts said.
"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," said Catarina de Albuquerque, the expert on the human right to water and sanitation.
The experts have been informed that a large-scale water shut-off for non-payment is happening in the City of Detroit, Michigan. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has been disconnecting water services from households, which have not paid bills for two months, and has accelerated the process since early June, with the number of disconnections rising to around 3,000 customers per week. As a result, some 30,000 households are expected to be disconnected from water services over the next few months.
Because of a high poverty rate and a high unemployment rate, relatively expensive water bills in Detroit are unaffordable for a significant portion of the population.
Leilani Farha, the expert on the right to adequate housing, expressed concern that children are being removed by social services from their families and homes because, without access to water, their housing is no longer considered adequate. "If these water disconnections disproportionately affect African Americans they may be discriminatory, in violation of treaties the US has ratified," Farha added.
"When I conducted an official country mission to the US in 2011, I encouraged the US Government to adopt a federal minimum standard on affordability for water and sanitation and a standard to provide protection against disconnections for vulnerable groups and people living in poverty. I also urged the Government to ensure due process guarantees in relation to water disconnection," said de Albuquerque, renewing her call to the federal Government to take action.
According to international human rights law, it is the State's obligation to provide urgent measures, including financial assistance, to ensure access to essential water and sanitation. "The households which suffered unjustified disconnections must be immediately reconnected," the experts said.
(*) The experts:The Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context, Leilani Farha, the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, and the Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque.
Leilani Farha is the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context. She was appointed in 2014. Ms. Farha is the Executive Director of the NGO Canada Without Poverty, based in Ottawa, Canada. A lawyer by training, for the past 20 years Ms. Farha has worked both internationally and domestically on the implementation of the right to adequate housing for the most marginalized groups, including on housing issues as the Executive Director of the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation (CERA).
Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Housing/Pages/HousingIndex.aspx
Philip Alston is the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. He was appointed in 2014 and is the John Norton Pomeroy Professor of Law at New York University. Mr. Alston has served the UN in several capacities including as UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Independent International Commission on Kyrgyzstan, Special Adviser to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Millennium Development Goals, chairperson and rapporteur of the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and UNICEF's Senior Legal Adviser on children's rights.
Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Poverty/Pages/SRExtremePovertyIndex.aspx
Catarina de Albuquerque is the first UN Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation. She was appointed by the Human Rights Council in 2008. Ms. de Albuquerque is a Professor at the Law Faculties of the Universities of Braga, Coimbra and of the American University's Washington College of Law. She is a senior legal advisor at the Prosecutor General's Office.
Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/WaterAndSanitation/SRWater/Pages/SRWaterIndex.aspx
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Detroit's Fight for Public Water Is Also the Nation's
Cutting off water to those who can't afford it has roots in a long-standing, inequitable pricing scheme
Anna Lappé / Al Jazeera America
(June 30, 2014) -- Detroit made international news this month when its municipal water board resumed cutting off water to residents with unpaid bills. With thousands of community members struggling in homes with no running water, local groups reached out to the United Nations special rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation to intervene.
On Wednesday, UN officials responded, calling the water department's actions a "violation of the human right to water and other international human rights."
The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department's decision to cut off residents with unpaid bills has put the city in the crosshairs of a national press seemingly fascinated by yet another story of its dance on the economic brink. Community groups, zeroing in on residents' inability to bathe, cook or use the toilet, saw the shutoffs as an indication that the department is desperate to bring down its $5.7 billion water and sewer debt.
Kevyn Orr, Detroit's emergency manager, appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder last year to see the city through bankruptcy, is considering the privatization of the city's water. According to a water department spokesman, "DWSD has no say in the matter."
Any such consideration of full (or even partial) privatization of a vital public good such as water -- especially under the guise that such a move would help straighten out the city's finances -- would be tremendously shortsighted.
Downsides of Private Water
Privatization of water has a terrible track record in the US and around the world. According to a white paper out this month from Corporate Accountability International (CAI), water privatization overwhelmingly leads to higher prices for cities and people and, in many cases, decreased efficiencies.
In the United Kingdom, two decades of privatization increased the average cost of water by 50 percent. In France, the price of water shot up 16 percent under private management, the result in part of the private water companies' legal mandate to return profit to their shareholders.
In contrast, a public water system puts any revenue from ratepayers back into the system, which is how Paris saved $46 million in the first year after taking back the water department from a private company -- and lowered rates for residents.
In New Jersey, where United Water, the US affiliate of the global water company Suez, has a number of contracts, the firm has lobbied against bills requiring notification of rate increases or keeping local governments better apprised of water supplies, according to the CAI report. (Full disclosure: I am a strategic adviser to CAI.)
In Stockton, California, four years of private water -- as well as neglected infrastructure and contract noncompliance -- ended with the city reclaiming public control. In fact, CAI reports that since 2002, more than 20 municipalities in the US have taken back control from private companies such as United Water.
Private water companies pitch their services as a way to balance budgets, but Detroit's public water system is struggling in large part due to policy decisions, not because of some inherent inefficiency of the public sector.
An Unjust Water Policy
A big reason many of Detroit's poorer residents are struggling with their water bills is inequitable water-pricing. The United States uses a uniform unit pricing scheme for water delivery; it's a form of cost allocation that allows rate differences between categories (say, residential or commercial users), but not between different types of users -- who might have vastly different incomes -- within those categories.
Because water rates are felt disproportionately by low-income consumers, they burden public districts that have less wealthy residents. In a 2013 report on local government spending on public water (PDF), three mayors -- Philadelphia's Michael Nutter; Scott Smith of Mesa, Arizona; and Kevin Johnson of Sacramento, California -- called the pricing scheme "regressive" (PDF), adding:
Current public water cost allocation schemes that rely on uniform user class pricing place a tremendous financial burden on the lower median income households in a community. The financial burden is both substantial, and sometimes, widespread in a community.
It's a conclusion that might sound abstract but is very real to the 12,500 Detroit households that had their water cut off so far this year.
This water pricing structure was put in place with the birth of the Clean Water Act, but back in the 1970s when it passed there was significantly more federal support for local water districts. Since then, according to the watchdog group Food & Water Watch, federal spending "on improvements to our water and sewer systems has declined by more than 80 percent."
Even as the 2008–10 recession pushed more and more families into debt and increased unemployment, local water systems were forced to carry a greater burden for water services. In 2010, local government spent $111.4 billion on water needs — an all-time high.
With all eyes on Detroit, it's important to realize what we're seeing: A city water department cutting off residents appears — and is -- extreme, but it's a taste of what private water companies do. "The rate hikes and service cutoffs we're seeing in Detroit," CAI's Erin Diaz told me, "while uncharacteristic of public water systems, are actually a very real glimpse into what the city's system could be like if privatized -- we've seen it all over the world."
We need a renewed investment in public water. The mayors' report on local water and wastewater spending warned that without more robust federal and state support for water systems, communities around the country will increasingly feel the pinch.
But the solution is not privatization; we need what the mayors called "a fresh look at local affordability and national water policy" -- a more equitable water policy that does not leave districts or needy citizens in the lurch. For thousands of community members in Detroit, this fresh look isn't happening quickly enough.
Anna Lappé is the author of Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It and the co-founder of the Small Planet Institute and Real Food Media Project.
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