Activists plead with UN to stop water cut-offs in Detroit

Activists plead with UN to stop water cut-offs in Detroit

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(New York) -- A severe water crisis in the financially bankrupt city of Detroit, Michigan has prompted several non-governmental organizations and activists to appeal for U.N. intervention in one of the world’s richest countries.

“This is unprecedented,” said Maude Barlow, founder of the Blue Planet Project, a group that advocates water as a human right.

She pointed out that hundreds of thousands of people, mostly African Americans, are having their water ruthlessly turned off.

Families with children, the elderly and the sick, cannot bathe, flush their toilets or cook in their own homes, she added.

“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,” said Barlow, a one-time senior advisor on water to a former President of the U.N. General Assembly.

Last March, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) announced plans to shut off water service for 1,500 to 3,000 customers every week if their water bills were not paid. And on Tuesday, the City Council approved an 8.7-percent water rate increase.

According to a DWSD document, more than 80,000 residential households – in a city of 680,000 people – are in arrears, with thousands of families without water, and thousands more expected to lose access at any moment.

A group of NGOs has submitted a report to Catarina de Albuquerque, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, urging the United Nations to weigh in on the crisis and help restore water services and stop further cut-offs.

In a joint report released Wednesday, the Detroit People’s Water Board, the Blue Planet Project, the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and Food and Water Watch made several recommendations, including an appeal to the state of Michigan and the U.S. government to respect the human right to water and sanitation.

The report also calls on the city of Detroit to abandon its plans for further cut-offs and restore services to households that have suffered water cuts.

Sources say there are many factors driving this: federal assistance for water infrastructure has been cut back by more than three-quarters since the 1970s, ageing systems are reaching the end of their lifespan, and water quality standards are getting stronger as we learn more about the health risks of substances that contaminate our water.

Large cities, in particular, are struggling to maintain and modernize water systems without making water service unaffordable for their least well-off residents.

Over the last decade, Detroit residents have seen water rates rise by 119 percent, according to a press release Wednesday.

With unemployment rates at a record high and the poverty rate at about 40 percent, Detroit water bills are unaffordable to a significant portion of the population.

Many of those affected by the shut-offs were given no warning.

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