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Detroit, Don’t Take Water Away From Those Who Can’t Afford It

St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Detroit water station

Photo: Joined with folks in Detroit to raise awareness about water cut-offs by delivering 1,000 litres of water across the Canada-U.S. border., July 2014.

For some people in Detroit, this has been a long summer: camping in other people’s houses, unable to cook, bathe, and flush the toilet. Since March, the city has been cutting of water services to thousands of homes that are behind in payments.

This week, Detroit’s bankruptcy judge, Steven Rhodes, is scheduled to decide whether to stop the water cutoffs. Community groups, represented by lawyer Alice Jennings, have been in mediation with the representatives of the City of Detroit since September 8th to come to an agreement on the cutoffs.

An estimated 17,000 residences were spared losing access to water when the city announced they were placing a moratorium on the shutoffs on July 21. But the shutoffs resumed on August 26 and thousands more households are at risk of losing the most fundamental of human rights.

At the end of August, Jennings filed a motion asking Judge Rhodes to stop the cutoffs and restore water services to occupied residences without water.

Detroiters pay some of the highest water rates in the country — twice that of the national average. With its 10 point plan and affordability fairs, the city attempted to reach out to “willful non-payers” and low income households. Yet, the plan and fairs do not address the root problem: many have no income. Without a job, paying $150 just isn’t possible.

Some see the recent regionalization plan as the best option for the city of Detroit. But it remains to be seen how this plan will impact the most vulnerable already adversely affected by the Detroit water system’s poor management. The Detroit People’s Water Board warns that creating a regional water authority is the next step on the pathway to privatization.

More importantly, those affected by this plan were left out of the decision making process. The ability to participate in decisions on how water and basic services are allocated is a pillar to a truly democratic society.

Judge Rhodes has a critical decision to make on Wednesday. Four years ago on July 28, 2010, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly — 122 of the 193 member states– voted that clean, safe drinking water is a human right.

Upholding UN resolutions are often seen as a federal responsibility. But what happens when a federal government fails in its duty to afford people basic human rights? Many would argue that lower levels of government — state and municipal — and courts have legal and moral obligations to uphold international obligations when federal governments have failed.

Michigan governor Rick Snyder and Detroit mayor Mike Duggan have failed to use their power to stop the shut offs and restore services to those without water. Representatives of the City of Detroit in mediation must also remember their obligation to respect the human right to water.

In order to give life to the UN resolutions recognizing the human right to water and sanitation, we hope Judge Rhodes stops the cutoffs once and for all. And in order to take a step towards recreating Detroit as a genuinely democratic society, we hope he ensures that those who have long been marginalized in Detroit be included in the governance of their water.