The Detroit water shut-offs beg the question: Where does the right to water begin and end?


Is access to water a human right?

In Detroit, where water shut-offs have received international attention, United Nations representatives have answered that question with a resounding “yes,” stating that failure to restore water services to vulnerable citizens is a violation of basic human rights.

This past week, two U.N. special rapporteurs — experts appointed by the Geneva-based U.N. council to report on a situation — visited the debt-ridden city to speak with residents, community leaders and water department employees who expressed concern about the water shut-offs affecting thousands of residents. So far this year, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has disconnected water from at least 27,000 households, according to the U.N. Those subject to shut-offs must owe at least $150 or be past due by 60 days on a water bill.

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The shut-offs are an attempt by the water department to recover more than $175 million in unpaid bills. The department itself carries about $5.4 billion in bonded debt, and water rates in the city have increased by 120 percent in recent years to account for a decreased population driven by the city’s foreclosure crisis. 

Catarina de Albuquerque, the U.N. special rapporteur on human right to water and sanitation, and Leilani Farha, special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, both expressed deep concern with the water department’s policy.

“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 reported on by Al Jazeera America. “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 step is new to me.”

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Detroit isn’t the only city to use water shut-offs to force payment of delinquent bills — such policies are common in cities across the city. So Detroit’s situation raises questions: Where does the right to water begin and end? Does the human right to water include treated water? Does it include water delivered to a home? If a water utility can’t shut off water, what authority does it have to collect revenue? And most of all, who should pay for infrastructure, treatment and delivery if not those using it?

In late September, after the city put a temporary moratorium on shut offs, Detroit’s bankruptcy judge ruled that although “water is a necessary ingredient to sustaining life,” residents nevertheless have no “enforceable right” to water, according to Al Jazeera America.

Other factors certainly come into play. For instance, businesses have been allowed to rack up water debt without facing shut-offs. According to Al Jazeera America, commercial and industrial users owe $30 million in unpaid water bills, including $80,000 by the Detroit Red Wings’ hockey arena and $55,000 by the Detroit Lions’ stadium.

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So it’s a complicated situation without an easy answer.

Detroit is working toward a solution. On Oct. 10, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan announced the creation of the Great Lakes Regional Water Authority, which some criticize as a move to privatize Detroit’s water and sewer services. The authority will include Detroit and three neighboring counties.

From a statement released by the mayor’s office: “Each partner recognized the fundamental fairness of this plan and its benefits to customers across the region, particularly the establishment of a dedicated $4.5 million water affordability fund for those struggling to pay their bills. Once the new authority is in place early next year, the city will begin moving forward with its plan to put Detroiters to work rebuilding our crumbling water mains.” 

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Until then, the debate about water and basic human rights will surely continue.


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