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New study reveals millions of people in the U.S. have experienced water cutoffs


People attend a rally in Detroit to protest water shut offs. Detroit is one of many U.S. cities where many people have had their water shut off when they aren’t able to pay their bills.

U.S. based Food & Water Watch recently released a groundbreaking study that reveals that an estimated 1.4 million people in the United States experienced a water shutoff in 2016. Data projections suggest the number could go as high as 15 million, or a shocking 1 out of every 20 households.

Food & Water Watch is a Washington-based nonprofit organization that advocates for affordable and safe food and water for everyone. For the study, the organization requested public records from the two biggest water suppliers in each state on residential water shut-offs in 2016.

As reported by the Associated Press, the cities with the highest shut off rates that year, where at least 10 per cent of residential customers had their water shut off for some period of time, were Detroit, New Orleans, Springdale, Arkansas, and Oklahoma’s two largest cities, Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

The study revealed that poor people and cities with large minority populations frequently had higher shut-off rates. The author of the report, Mary Grant, noted that some poor households in New Orleans and Detroit that year paid more than $1,000 for water service, which amounted to about nine per cent of their household incomes.

“Nine per cent of your income just for your basic water service – that’s, by any measure, unaffordable,” Grant said.

Out of the 99 utilities surveyed, 73 provided information. A pattern of secrecy emerged – overwhelmingly, investor-owned utilities (meaning not operated by the city or township) refused to give the requested information. Out of the 11 asked, only one private water company was willing to share requested data.

“This is America’s secret water shame,” said Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch. “As our nation continues to experience a high level of economic inequality and the price of drinking water increases, millions of people are losing access. People must choose between rent, food, medicine—the necessities of life. This disastrous situation is a direct result of misguided priorities and the federal tax cuts that have led to a critical water infrastructure crisis over the past two decades. And we know that this is probably the tip of the iceberg because we only have data from public utilities. What kind of nation have we become to deny people drinking water?”

The Council of Canadians and the Blue Planet Project were at the forefront of the fight for the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation. Maude Barlow, the founder of the Blue Planet Project, has written several books about the global water crisis and served as Senior Advisor on Water to the 63rd  President of the United Nations General Assembly and continues to work in Canada and internationally for the implementation of this human right.

“This incredibly important report from Washington-based Food & Water Watch shows that the violation of the human right to water does not just take place in poor countries. This report shows that the violation frequently happens in the richest country on Earth,” she said.

“A ‘perfect storm’ of conditions means that it can happen anywhere if we are not vigilant. Declining and polluted water sources combined with growing inequality and poverty, added to dramatically rising water rates, threaten to undermine the human rights to water and sanitation as recognized by the United Nations everywhere.”

All governments are obligated to fulfill the human right to water and sanitation. When people’s access to water is denied because of their inability to pay their water bill, their basic human rights are being denied. The Council of Canadians, Blue Planet Project, Food & Water Watch and other groups continue to work with people around the world for the recognition and implementation of the human rights to water and sanitation.