Violations of right to water in Detroit highlighted, UN responds

VIDEO: Water is a Human Right: Detroit Residents Seek U.N. Intervention as City Shuts Off Taps to Thousands, Democracy Now! June 24, 2014. Blue Planet Project campaigner Meera Karunananthan interviewed at 50:24.

On June 18, 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 cut-offs in Detroit.

As noted in our media release on the report, "In March 2014, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) announced it would begin shutting off water ser­vice for 1,500 to 3,000 customers every week if their water bills were not paid, and yesterday, the City Council approved an 8.7 percent water rate increase. According to a recent DWSD document, more than 80,000 residential households are in arrears."

IPS first picked up the story quoting Blue Planet Project founder Maude Barlow, “I visited the city and worked with the Detroit People’s Water Board several weeks ago and came away terribly upset. ...This is the worst violation of the human right to water I have ever seen outside of the worst slums in the poorest countries in failed states of the global South." Slate.com further quoted Barlow saying, “We are asking the UN special rapporteur to make clear to the U.S. government that it has violated the human right to water. If the US government does not respond appropriately this will also impact their Universal Periodic Review when they stand before the Human Rights Council to have their [human rights] record evaluated."

In its report, Aljazeera America quotes Blue Planet Project campaigner Meera Karunananthan saying, "What we see is a violation of the human right to water. The U.S. has international obligations in terms of people’s right to water, and this is a blatant violation of that right. We’re hoping the U.N. will put pressure on the federal government and the state of Michigan to do something about it." And yesterday, Karunananthan and Maureen Taylor of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization were interviewed on Democracy Now! about the issue. Karunananthan was also interviewed by BBC Radio on this.

Late yesterday, the United Nations responded.

In a media release, three UN experts on the human rights to water and sanitation, adequate housing, and extreme poverty and human rights expressed concern about widespread water disconnections in Detroit of households unable to pay water bills. Catarina de Albuquerque, the expert on the human right to water and sanitation, Leilani Farha, the expert on the right to adequate housing, and Philip Alston, the expert on extreme poverty and human rights, stated, "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."

De Albuquerque says, "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."

The media release also notes, "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 experts said."

Before the three UN representatives made these comments, Fox News highlighted, "Barlow, who put together the U.N. appeal, said if the U.S. does not respond to a U.N. intervention, it could impact its U.N. Universal Periodic Review. The review keeps records of all U.N. member states and their human rights obligations."

The four groups have also launched a petition that calls on US President Barack Obama and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to 'stop the water shut-offs and work to make water accessible and affordable for all'. We encourage you to sign this petition.

This news story has also been picked up by CBC Radio's As It Happens, the Detroit News, the Washington PostMLive, the Washington Times, the Independent in the UK, Terra Brasil, and in numerous other news articles around the world.

Tell Detroit to turn the taps back on: Water is a human right!