In Detroit right now an ongoing battle between the city's government and its poorer citizens is beginning to intensify and even reach the attention of international organizations.
Earlier this spring the city made good on its threat to start cutting services to up to 3,000 households a week that were at least $150 overdue on their water bills. The Detroit Water & Sewage Department, the city agency in charge of water services, estimates that more than 80,000 households are behind on their water bills. So far, more than 4,000 households have had their service cut indefinitely.
It is thought that so many are unable to pay due to the size of the city's infrastructure, which was meant to be supported by a much larger population, relative to the number of households left behind, most of which are lower income. Moreover, there are many federal programs to help defray the cost of gas and electricity, but very few that provide assistance for water bills.
Case in point: this isn't the first time Detroit has shut off water in order to collect money on delinquent payments; however the city at that time also implemented a program to make bills more affordable and shoulder some of its cost. That program was ultimately cut when the city filed for bankruptcy last year and is unlikely to make a reappearance.
To add insult to injury, just a few weeks ago the Detroit City Council voted to raise water and sewer rates for the public by almost 9 percent, or almost $5 more per month. The rate increase is meant to recoup an estimated $118 million in remaining outstanding fees.
There have been multiple citizen protests, including one today, against the government's actions but the city has seemingly turned a blind eye.
Fed up with the city's attitude, local advocacy groups recently reached out to the United Nations to seek intervention, calling the rampant shut-offs an abuse of human rights. A team of UN experts on human rights responded almost immediately and issued a formal statement agreeing that,
"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. Because of a high poverty rate and a high unemployment rate, relatively expensive water bills in Detroit are unaffordable for a significant portion of the population."
The UN group, which estimated that at least 30,000 households could be left without water service in the next few months, also warned that the shut-offs could backfire in a big way. One of the UN experts, Leilani Farha, wrote, "If these water disconnections disproportionately affect African-Americans they may be discriminatory, in violation of treaties the U.S. has ratified," which could presumably lead to fines and legal action.
As of this writing, the Detroit government has yet to respond to the UN statement or halt the shut-offs.
Top image of citizen protest via freep.com.