Widespread water shut-offs in US city of Detroit prompt outcry from UN rights experts

Photo: World Bank/Allison Kwesell

25 June 2014 – Disconnecting water from people who cannot pay their bills is an affront to their human rights, a group of United Nations experts said today, amid reports of widespread water shut-offs in the United States city of Detroit for non-payment.

“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 stated in a news release.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has been disconnecting water services from households which have not paid bills for two months, and has sped up 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.

The news release noted that due to high poverty and unemployment rates, relatively expensive water bills in Detroit are unaffordable for a significant portion of the population.

Catarina de Albuquerque, the Special Rapporteur on the human right to water and sanitation, said that 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,” she stated.

During her 2011 mission to the US, Ms. de Albuquerque encouraged the 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.

Leilani Farha, the Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, voiced 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 United States has ratified,” she noted.

Under 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 stressed.


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