Detroit's "unprecedented" shutoff of water utilities to city homes condemns residents to "lives without dignity," violates human rights on a large scale, and disproportionately impacts African-Americans, United Nations investigators declared Monday following a two-day inquiry.
"Denial of access to sufficient quantity of water threatens the rights to adequate housing, life, health, adequate food, integrity of the family," wrote UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing Leilani Farha and UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, in a joint statement. "It exacerbates inequalities, stigmatizes people and renders the most vulnerable even more helpless. Lack of access to water and hygiene is also a real threat to public health as certain diseases could widely spread."
The officials visited the city following appeals in June from organizations concerned with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department's (DWSD) escalation of water shut-offs to accounts that have fallen behind on their bills, amounting to up to 3,000 disconnections a week. The increase touched off organizing efforts by residents who charge they're part of a larger plan, in keeping with Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr's bankruptcy push, to displace African-Americans and privatize water and public services.
During their investigation, the UN experts held interviews and meetings with local residents, as well as with city officials. On Sunday, hundreds of people crowded into a town hall meeting with the officials. "Once again, the international spotlight was on Detroiters trying to carve out dignified lives while being denied basic necessities of life," said Maureen Taylor, spokesperson for the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and the Detroit People's Water Board, at the town hall meeting.
DeMeeko Williams, coordinator for the Detroit Water Brigade, told Common Dreams that it is absurd that people in the city have to appeal to the United Nations for support. "You can't get help from the city government, the state government is the main culprit, and the U.S. government is not doing anything, so what else is there to do? Who do we turn to?" he asked.
Despite a grassroots push for the Water Affordability Plan, the city has increased water rates 8.7 percent at a time of massive unemployment and poverty. Detroit is effectively passing "the increased costs of leakages due to an aging infrastructure" onto residents who can't afford it, the investigators charge.
The rapporteurs document the heavy toll the shut-offs have taken.
"We were deeply disturbed to observe the indignity people have faced and continue to live with in one of the wealthiest countries in the world and in a city that was a symbol of America’s prosperity," they state. "Without water, people cannot live a life with dignity—they have no water for drinking, cooking, bathing, flushing toilets and keeping their clothes and houses clean. Despite the fact that water is essential for survival, the city has no data on how many people have been and are living without tap water, let alone information on age, disabilities, chronic illness, race or income level of the affected population."
Despite the lack of data provided by the city, information obtained by the investigators suggests the city's vulnerable and dispossessed are bearing the brunt of the crisis. "About 80 percent of the population of Detroit is African American. According to data from 2013, 40.7 percent of Detroit’s population lives below the poverty level, 99 percent of the poor are African American," they write. "Twenty percent of the population is living on 800 USD or less per month, while the average monthly water bill is currently 70.67 USD."
Furthermore, they note, "thousands of households are living in fear that their water may be shut off at any time without due notice, that they may have to leave their homes and that children may be taken by child protection services as houses without water are deemed uninhabitable for children. In many cases, unpaid water bills are being attached to property taxes increasing the risk of foreclosure."
The investigators continue, "It was touching to witness mothers’ courage to strive to keep their children at home, and the support people were providing to each other to live in these unbearable circumstances. And it was heartbreaking to hear of the stigmatization associated with the shut-offs—in particular the public humiliation of having a blue mark imprinted on the sidewalk in front of homes when their water was shut off due to unpaid bills."
Meanwhile, the shut-offs continue. "There is still a high number of people going without water," said Williams. "The Detroit Water Brigade is on the front-lines trying to help people get back to self-sufficiency. We need more support. The situation is not just going to go away."