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U.S. Judge rules ‘no right or law’ to guaranteed water service

Nurses water rally

The Council of Canadians has expressed profound disappointment on the ruling by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes against issuing a six-month restraining order against water disconnections in Detroit. An estimated 24,000 people have had their water shut-off in that city this year and that number is now increasing by about 400 people a day.

In early September, the Council of Canadians had written Judge Rhodes to say, “We understand that you will be ruling on the Temporary Restraining Order on the water shutoffs… and are writing to urge you to place an injunction on the shut-offs in order to respect the human right to water and sanitation.”

The Guardian reports, “The judge overseeing Detroit’s bankruptcy ruled Monday that the city can continue to shut off water if people can’t pay their bill. Judge Steven Rhodes said there was no ‘enforceable right’ to water and the Detroit water department would face a significant risk of higher defaults if a moratorium was issued. …Rhodes said the water department probably had not done enough to help those with chronically low income. But he commended a recent plan to get people into a two-year payment scheme, starting with a 10% down payment.”

The Detroit Free Press adds, “Rhodes’ ruling from the bench found no constitutional right to water service and agreed with city assertions that a moratorium would encourage more people not to pay their bills, leading to potentially large drops in revenue at a crucial time for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department…”

Michigan Radio highlights, “Rhodes ruled Monday that there is no fundamental ‘right or law’ to guaranteed water service.”

And Reuters notes, “There had been questions over whether or not the judge could issue an order since his role is to decide if Detroit’s bankruptcy plan is fair and feasible, not to oversee city operations. On Monday, he said the bankruptcy code does not allow a federal court to ‘interfere with the choices a municipality makes in the services it will provide’.”

Yesterday Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow commented, “It is appalling in wealthiest country in the world this denial of the most basic rights, water, has been allowed to go so long. We are very disappointed by this outcome, and plead to the mayor to cancel the shutoffs.”

In June, the Blue Planet Project, the Detroit People’s Water Board, the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and Food & Water Watch submitted a report to Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, urging her to take immediate action to help restore water services and stop further water cut-offs in Detroit.

The UN representatives on the human rights to water and sanitation, adequate housing, and extreme poverty and human rights replied by stating, “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. …According to 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 special rapporteur on the rights to water and sanitation also highlighted, “When I conducted an official country mission to the US in 2011, I encouraged the US 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. I also urged the Government to ensure due process guarantees in relation to water disconnection.”

Blue Planet Project campaigner Meera Karunananthan has noted, “The median household income in Detroit is $25,193. According to the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, a family of four pays between $150-200 per month for water and sewerage services, which can represent up to 20 per cent of their monthly income.” And as Council of Canadians water campaigner Emma Lui has stated, “Even though 40 per cent of the population is unemployed, water rates are twice the national average in the bankrupt city. Water rates have increased 119 per cent in the last decade. An increase of 8.7 per cent was approved in June. The bankruptcy plan proposed recently would increase water rates another 34 per cent.”

The plaintiffs who sought the injunction are likely to appeal the Judge’s decision. Their lawyer Alice Jennings stated, “No one ever said the water had to be free. Our position is the water had to be affordable. We’re still looking for affordable water.”

Further reading
FAQs: The fight to protect the human right to water in Detroit
Windsor-Essex chapter organizes solidarity action to challenge Detroit water cutoffs