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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."

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