Nicole Hill holds up her past due water bill at her home in Detroit on June 25, 2014. Detroit Water department spokeswoman Curtrise Garner says service to 4,500 customers was cut last month, but more than half then paid up. Garner says about $90 million is owed by 90,000 active customers who are behind at least two months. United Nations experts say water shutoffs at Detroit homes due to overdue bills violate international human rights.(Paul Sancya Associated Press)
Three UN experts on the human rights to water and sanitation, adequate housing, and extreme poverty and human rights expressed concern June 25 about reports of widespread water disconnections in 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 Detroit.
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, 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 U.S. in 2011, I encouraged the U.S. 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.