U.N. Condemns Detroit’s Widespread Water Shutoffs

By Courtney Cox

Catarina de Albuquerque, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water, visited the U.S. this week to examine what appears to be a water emergency in Detroit, one of our nation’s most fiscally distressed cities. Al Jazeera reports that water disconnections have occurred at an alarming level this year as the city attempts to handle “the largest municipal bankruptcy in federal history.” The cost of water in Detroit is much higher than the national average making it difficult for mid and low income residents to pay their bills. While residents’ water supply is hastily disconnected, businesses (industrial and commercial users) face no service interruptions, even with their collective $30 million in unpaid water bills.

Albuquerque highlighted the indignity that residents face as a result of their disconnected water in a city that was once an industrial capital. Humiliating blue marks are sketched on the sidewalk in front of homes with disconnected service. Records reflect that African Americans (who represent 80% of the population) are particularly affected by these disconnections. Albuquerque asserted that the water shutoffs not only violate residents’ human right to water under international law, but could also constitute discrimination under international law. The mass water disconnections also raise public health issues,, because these conditions breed communicable diseases.

Albuquerque recommended that the city restore disconnected water and adopt a mandatory affordability threshold. Additionally, she charged the federal government to investigate the disconnection to determine whether they have a disproportionate impact on African Americans and other groups protected against discrimination.