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Water shut offs resume in Detroit

Water disconnections in Detroit are set to resume today.

The Detroit News reports, “Hundreds lined up outside the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s East Side Customer Service Center Saturday in a last-minute effort to avoid having their water service shut off. The water department is scheduled to start shutting off service Sunday to customers who owe money, and Saturday’s ‘Stay Connected to DWSD Water Fair’ offered an opportunity to avoid disconnections by entering into a payment plan with the utility, spokeswoman Linda Clark said. …Clark said about 23,000 people owe money to the department. The average amount owed: $663.”

The Associated Press adds, “The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has said it will start shutting off service Sunday on delinquent residential accounts not on plans.” Last month, the Detroit News reported, “The program of residential shut-offs was suspended in the winter and will continue when weather warms. Since the campaign began in 2014, the city has conducted about 50,000 shut-offs.”

That article also notes, “Detroit last year shut water service to 23,300 homes … but left the taps running at thousands of businesses that owe millions of dollars, city documents show. Businesses and government-owned properties owe nearly twice as much as residences, $41 million compared with $26 million for homes, but only 680 were shut off in 2015, according to records obtained by The Detroit News through the Freedom of Information Act.” Maureen Taylor of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization says, “[Businesses] don’t get threats. They don’t get shut-off notices. They get to dispute their bills. When we try to dispute a bill, we still get shut off.”

On June 18, 2014, 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, who at that time was the United Nations 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 cut-offs in Detroit. She responded, “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.”

Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow has commented, “Detroit is a victim of decades of market driven neo-liberal policy that put business and profit ahead of public good. With globalization and the hollowing out of the once mighty auto industry, wealth and businesses fled to the suburbs, draining ‎the city of its tax base and the water department of its revenues. The burden of paying for the water and sewer services landed squarely on those who stayed, mostly poor African Americans. Rates rose 119 per cent in a decade in a city with record high unemployment and a 40 per cent poverty rate.”

In addition to the Blue Planet Project report to the UN, the Council of Canadians also organized a solidarity convoy and delivered water to Detroit residents in July 2014. In September 2014, we asked Judge Steven Rhodes to issue a restraining order against the water shutoffs. In June 2015, we attended the International Social Movements Gathering on Water Rights and Housing Rights in Detroit organized by the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and the Detroit People’s Water Board Coalition. And in October 2015, Council of Canadians activists from across the country, along with Vanessa Gray from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation and independent media, met with American allies in Detroit for a tour and strategy discussion.

We continue to urge the City of Detroit to implement the water affordability program proposed by the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization. That program calls for the adoption of 1) a rate affordability program, consisting of a rate discount component, an [arrears] management component and a water conservation component; 2) designated fundamental consumer protections involving late fees, service disconnections, and payment plans; and 3) designated collection initiatives directed toward customers having an ability-to-pay.

For numerous blogs on this situation, and more about our interventions in support of the right to water and sanitation in Detroit, please click here.