Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

There are less than 72 hours left in this Mid-Year Campaign and our independent journalism needs your help today.
If you value our work, please support Common Dreams. This is our hour of need.

Join the small group of generous readers who donate, keeping Common Dreams free for millions of people each year. Without your help, we won’t survive.

In 2002, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights explicitly recognized water as a human right, saying it is "indispensable for leading a life in human dignity." (Photo: Davide Restivo/Wikimedia/cc)

In 2002, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights explicitly recognized water as a human right, saying it is "indispensable for leading a life in human dignity." (Photo: Davide Restivo/Wikimedia/cc)

Brewing Human Rights Crisis In Baltimore As City Threatens Mass Water Shutoffs

Residents warn move is part of global trend 'towards the commodification of our basic needs'

Sarah Lazare

In what residents warn is a mounting human rights crisis, the city of Baltimore has commenced sending 25,000 notices, the vast majority to city and county residents, threatening to shut off water if delinquent bills are not paid within ten days.

The organization Food & Water Watch estimates that 75,000 residents are under immediate threat of having their taps turned off, in a city beset with rising water rates and housing costs, where nearly one out of four people live below the federal poverty line.

Jessica Lewis, co-founder of the Right to Housing Alliance, a human rights organization led by people most affected by the affordable housing crisis in Baltimore, told Common Dreams that local communities are in the process of assessing the impact and getting organized.

"A lot of renters we work with are angry but also tired, because they see more and more of the costs of having a place to live getting further out of reach," said Lewis. "This is part of a continuing trend towards the commodification of our basic needs."

Reporter Luke Broadwater revealed in the Baltimore Sun late last month that the notices had been sent out to customers who owe more than $250 dating back at least six months. Only 369 of the 25,000 accounts receiving shut off notices are businesses, but they comprise $15 million of the $40 million the city says is owed in unpaid bills.

In addition, a Baltimore Sun report in 2012 found that big businesses, government outfits, and nonprofits had together accrued more than $10 million in unpaid water bills.

But residents who are unable to pay will likely be hardest hit when the water stops flowing.

Baltimore water rates have been raised more than 40 percent in the past three years—an increase compounded by a rise in housing prices, according to Lewis. This means many are simply unable to pay to have their basic needs met.

Furthermore, thanks to Baltimore tenant policies, water and housing insecurity are even further intertwined. "Water bills can be considered part of a tenant's rent, so they can be evicted for not paying," explained Lewis. "If there is a structural problem, like a leaking water pipe, that can make the water bills outrageous."

According to Matt Hill and Zafar Shah of Baltimore's Public Justice Center, "Low-income renters are in a particularly precarious situation because they cannot get their own water accounts, and Baltimore Public Works does not allow them to challenge inaccurate billing practices or adjust for leaks because the accounts are not in their names."

In a city that is 63 percent black and plagued with racial inequalities, the shut-offs are poised to disproportionately impact people of color.

Mitch Jones of Food & Water Watch pointed out in a statement released Tuesday, "It is not even clear whether all the bills for those targeted for shut-off are accurate, given Baltimore’s history of over-billing—one of the reasons behind the city’s effort to install smart meters."

While it is not yet apparent whether the city's massive purge is part of a drive to privatize the city's water, residents say there are reasons to be concerned. Last year, labor, church, and community leaders with the coalition One Baltimore United organized to keep the water system public, in response to an increasingly cozy relationship between water corporation Veolia and the city.

The fight for access to water is a global flashpoint, as corporations around the world attempt to seize control of this vital good, and communities from Detroit to Dublin fight back. In 2002, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights explicitly recognized water as a human right, saying it is "indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights."

William Copeland of the Detroit-based East Michigan Environmental Action Council told Common Dreams, "The issue of water shutoffs intersects with issues of privatization, and they intersect with issues of displacement of communities of color, especially black communities. Here in Detroit, a big part of our organizing is about protecting the commons."

Analysts warn that, in Baltimore, lives are on the line.

"Disconnecting service to thousands of homes also poses a very real public health threat," said Jones. "Without water service, people cannot flush their toilets or wash their hands. Lack of adequate sanitation can cause diseases to spread, making people sick. The elderly, children and people with diabetes and other illnesses would be especially vulnerable. Extensive water shutoffs would be a public health crisis in the making."


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Just a few days left in our crucial Mid-Year Campaign and we might not make it without your help.
Who funds our independent journalism? Readers like you who believe in our mission: To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. No corporate advertisers. No billionaire founder. Our non-partisan, nonprofit media model has only one source of revenue: The people who read and value this work and our mission. That's it.
And the model is simple: If everyone just gives whatever amount they can afford and think is reasonable—$3, $9, $29, or more—we can continue. If not enough do, we go dark.

All the small gifts add up to something otherwise impossible. Please join us today. Donate to Common Dreams. This is crunch time. We need you now.

Naomi Klein: The US Is in the Midst of a 'Shock-and-Awe Judicial Coup'

"The rolling judicial coup coming from this court is by no means over," warned the author of "The Shock Doctrine."

Jake Johnson ·


Markey, Bowman Join Climate Coalition in Urging SCOTUS Expansion

"We cannot sit idly by," said Markey, "as extremists on the Supreme Court eviscerate the authorities that the government has had for decades to combat climate change and reduce pollution."

Brett Wilkins ·


Ocasio-Cortez Says US 'Witnessing a Judicial Coup in Process'

"It is our duty to check the Court's gross overreach of power in violating people's inalienable rights and seizing for itself the powers of Congress and the president."

Brett Wilkins ·


Critics Say Biden Drilling Bonanza 'Won't Lower Gas Prices' But 'Will Worsen Climate Crisis'

"President Biden's massive public lands giveaway in the face of utter climate catastrophe is just the latest sign that his climate commitments are mere rhetoric," said one campaigner.

Kenny Stancil ·


Grave Warnings as Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Case That Threatens 'Future of Voting Rights'

"Buckle up," implores one prominent legal scholar. "An extreme decision here could fundamentally alter the balance of power in setting election rules in the states and provide a path for great threats to elections."

Brett Wilkins ·

Common Dreams Logo