Detroit has too much of some things – stray dogs, abandoned houses – and not enough of others, such as residents who pay their water bills.
The latest sign of Detroit’s decline came from the city’s water department, when it said in March it would begin shutting off water for up to 3,000 homes and businesses a week in an attempt to stop the utility from sliding even further into debt.
The announcement sparked outrage among activists groups, who say the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) is going after the city’s most vulnerable citizens to shore up its bottom line.
Now those groups have called on the United Nations to intervene. In a letter sent to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation last week, local nonprofit Detroit People’s Water Board, Food and Water Watch and Canada-based Blue Planet Project pleaded for the world body to weigh in on the shut-offs.
“What we see is a violation of the human right to water,” said Meera Karunananthan, an international campaigner with the Blue Planet Project. “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.”
The groups accuse DWSD of charging unaffordable rates to Detroit citizens, and placing the burden of the city’s fleeing tax base on its poorest residents. They say DWSD is trying to rid itself of low-income customers in a bid to make the utility more attractive for a private takeover. DWSD denies the charge. But the city has acknowledged that at least a partial privatization of DWSD is being considered as Detroit attempts to shed some of its $18 billion in debt. DWSD accounts for $5 billion of that sum.