When I read about some group appealing to the United Nations to correct a human rights violation, my natural tendency is to think that it’s about something happening in some other country than the U.S. But, a story that appeared yesterday taught me once again not to make assumptions.
On June 18, a coalition of activists filed a report with the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation claiming that the Detroit City Council’s latest 8.9% hike in water and sewage rates in a city where more than 80,000 households are behind on their water bills constitutes “a violation of basic human rights,” and alleges that the shutting off of service to 7,000 households in the last two months is part of an effort “to sweeten the pot for a private investor” to take over the water and sewer system as part of Detriot’s bankruptcy proceedings.
Almost 50% of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD)’s 323,900 total accounts were delinquent as of March, with $175 million in outstanding bills. The DWSD announced that it would begin cutting off water to delinquent accounts, yet some people either never received a warning notice or were shut off before the notice arrived, according to the report. The DWDS says that the shutoffs are “reaping great benefits with the department.”
The People’s Water Board further claims that businesses that are behind “have not been targeted in the same way as residential users.” In answer to the charge, DWDS spokesman Bill Johnson says: “There are no sacred cows. We aren’t discriminating in terms of individuals or businesses, Last month we shut off about 3,600 accounts, both businesses and residential. Everybody is getting cut off who is $150 or 60 days in arrears. That is our policy and we’re ramping up our enforcement of that policy.”
While fewer than 11,000 of the 165,000 delinquent accounts are commercial or industrial clients, those accounts average more than $7,700 apiece in delinquent payments, compared to the $800 average for a residential account.
Water bills have risen 119% in Detroit over the last decade. Meanwhile unemployment’s at an all time high, and the poverty rate runs about 40%. The hard truth- a significant number of Detroit residents can’t afford their water bills. Lila Parks, President Emeritus of the Rosa Parks Institute, asks; “When delinquent corporate water lines are still running without collection of funds, it demonstrates a level of intentional disparity that devalues the lives of the people struggling financially. Where is our compassion? Where is our humanity?”
It seems that I ask myself those questions more and more often these days…