The Government in Detroit Is Doing Something the UN Called a Violation of Human Rights

The Government in Detroit Is Doing Something the UN Called a Violation of Human Rights

Usually when the UN declares a human rights violation, you don't expect it to be happening right here in America.

But that's what's happening in Detroit, where 15,200 residents have had their water turned off after the city's Water and Sewage Department began cracking down on delinquent accounts in March. In total, there are 92,000 residents at risk of losing their water.

The measures were met with harsh criticism from the United Nations, which views access to water as a human right. "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," UN officials said in a press release after the surge in shutoffs. "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."


How it happened: Old Man Winter bears at least a small part of the blame. The city was afraid to shut off residents' water during the frigid winter months out of fears the pipes might freeze without anything running through them. That created a backlog that the Water and Sewage Department tried to address en masse after the city had thawed out in March.

Detroit has been in dire financial straits for years, becoming the largest U.S. city ever to declare for bankruptcy last year. Many of its residents are still reeling from the housing crisis, and the cold winter meant higher heating bills than normal.

It's not a good combination, and it adds up to $118 million in overdue water bills from about half the department's customers (including businesses). While the city maintains that assistance is available for those who need it — 17,000 residents are currently on payment plans — finding out about and taking advantage of those programs can be difficult when your house doesn't have water.

Fighting back: The shutdowns have led to an eruption of protests in the Motor City. In one, protesters physically blocked a private contractor's trucks from leaving to turn off other citizens' water. Nine of them were arrested for their "human blockade."

A protest on Friday saw more than 1,000 people marching in the streets, wielding signs and chanting slogans. Even actor Mark Ruffalo joined in an attempt to Hulk-smash the shutoffs.


While some are worried the strict shutoff policy is a precursor to a private takeover of the water system led by Republican governor Rick Snyder, others are simply worried they won't have the clean water necessary to live in their own homes.

"This whole thing revolves around greed," Baxter Jones, one of the arrested protesters, told Detroit News. "Greed does not allow you to use your conscience. How can you consciously deprive a human being their right to live? It's horrible."

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Matt Connolly

Matt has written for Mother Jones, the Washington Examiner and Chicago Public Radio among many others. He's a resident of Washington, D.C., but much like Bruce Springsteen and pork roll he is a product of New Jersey.

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