As the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department moves to shut off water to thousands of residents who are delinquent on their bills, a coalition of activists is appealing to the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights to intervene on behalf of the bankrupt city’s most vulnerable citizens.
Their report, filed Wednesday with the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, alleges that the DWSD crackdown is part of an effort “to sweeten the pot for a private investor” to take over the city’s heavily-indebted water and sewer system as part of Detroit’s broader bankruptcy proceedings.
One of the activist groups behind the report, the Detroit People’s Water Board, notes that city residents have seen water rates more than double over the past decade at the same time that the city’s poverty rate rose to nearly 40 percent, putting the cost of basic running water beyond reach for tens of thousands of households. Earlier this week, city lawmakers voted to raise water rates by a further 8.7 percent.
Almost exactly 50 percent of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s 323,900 total accounts were delinquent as of March, according to the Detroit News (via Nexis), with a combined $175 million in unpaid water bills outstanding. The department announced at that time that it would begin an aggressive campaign of water shutoffs, and a DWSD spokesman said that it has shut off water to nearly 7,000 separate clients since the beginning of April. DWSD mailed warnings about the shutoffs in March, but the People’s Water Board report says that some residents it interviewed either never received a warning notice or had their water shut off before the payment deadline printed in the notices had passed.
One key piece of the activists’ complaint has to do with allegedly disparate treatment of residential and commercial clients by the DWSD. The People’s Water Board claims that delinquent business entities “have not been targeted in the same way as residential users,” a claim the department strongly disputes.
“There are no sacred cows. We aren’t discriminating in terms of individuals or businesses,” DWSD spokesman Bill Johnson said in an interview. “Last month we shut off about 3,600 accounts, both businesses and residential. Everybody is getting cut off who is $150 or 60 days in arrears. That is our policy and we’re ramping up our enforcement of that policy.”
The department has not yet had time to break out the data on water shutoffs by client category, Johnson said, but he hopes to be able to report exact figures on the number of business clients who have lost water access soon.
The DWSD’s roughly $5 billion in debts have turned out to be the most difficult piece of Detroit’s bankruptcy, after initially seeming to be on track for a rapid resolution. Neighboring counties have balked at absorbing the city system into a regional water and sewer authority, and subsequent plans to privatize the city’s water services have been criticized as too rapid, too costly, and too damaging to residents’ quality of life. The system’s massive backlog of delinquent bills makes it harder to convince anyone, whether private company or public authority, to shoulder the DWSD’s obligations. But if the water shutoffs were aimed at making the department look like a shinier prize in bankruptcy negotiations, they would likely be targeted at corporate clients directly, for the same reason that Depression-era gangsters robbed banks: that’s where the money is.
While the vast majority of the nearly 165,000 delinquent accounts reported in March are residential clients, those private households owe much smaller amounts than the commercial and industrial clients who are delinquent on their DWSD bills. Fewer than 11,000 delinquent accounts relate to commercial or industrial clients. But those delinquencies average more than $7,700 per business, according to the numbers published in the Detroit News in March, compared to an average debt of less than $600 per residential delinquency. Non-residential clients account for almost half of what DWSD is owed despite being less than 7 percent of total delinquencies, according to the March figures. The People’s Water Board obtained a document with more recent figures which shows a similar distribution of the delinquencies but lower total debts to DWSD as of May.
“We are asking the UN special rapporteur to make clear to the U.S. government that it has violated the human right to water,” said Maude Barlow, the National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians and a key member of the coalition that put the report together. In addition to creating international pressure to stop the Detroit shutoffs, Barlow said, the UN’s intervention could lead to formal consequences for the United States. “If the US government does not respond appropriately this will also impact their Universal Periodic Review,” she said, “when they stand before the Human Rights Council to have their [human rights] record evaluated.” A request for comment from the UN official to whom the report was submitted went unanswered.
This post has been updated to include comments from Maude Barlow and information shared by the organizers of the report on Detroit’s water shutoffs.