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U.N. to Detroit: Water cutoffs for non-payment may violate human rights

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It's a fact of life that if one doesn't pay his or her water bill, the water will eventually get cut off. That's also true in Detroit, where about 4,500 accounts have been shut off due to nonpayment. But, the Detroit News reported Wednesday, that didn't sit too well with the United Nations, who said Detroit's actions may violate international human rights.

“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,” said Catarina de Albuquerque, one of three individuals identified by the U.N. as an expert on the human right to water and sanitation. “Disconnections due to non-payment are only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying. In other words, when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections.”

According to the experts cited by the U.N., international human rights law mandates that governments take extraordinary measures to ensure access to clean water -- even provide financial assistance. The global body also demanded Detroit restore water to those shut off.

“The households which suffered unjustified disconnections must be immediately reconnected,” the U.N. said. It's unclear what, if anything, the U.N. can do. While de Albuquerque can make recommendations, ABC said, she has no enforcement power.

The letter appears to have been sent in response to an appeal from a coalition of welfare rights groups that approached the U.N. about the issue. On Wednesday, the coalition issued a statement demanding the city “immediately restore water to all Detroit residents."

"Gov. Rick Snyder should also demand that water service is restored for all people in the state. Further, we call on Sen. Carl Levin and Sen. Debbie Stabenow to hold hearings to look into this evolving crisis,” the statement added.

But Curtrise Garner, a spokesman with the water department, said the city is not targeting low-income customers. It is, however, targeting those with balances more than $150 overdue or more than two months behind on their payments. According to the department, half of the nearly 324,000 accounts are overdue. Even so, only 46,000 shut-off notices were sent out this spring and less than ten percent of those were shut off. Garner further said that "more than half of those came into the office and paid the accounts in full" within a day or two.

"If people are being proactive, we work with them," Garner added. "But if we don't hear anything, we don't know if they are not paying or if they won't pay."

“DWSD is working closely with its customers in Detroit who are delinquent in their payments to prevent avoidable water shut-offs,” the agency said Tuesday. “The department currently has more than 17,000 Detroit customers enrolled into a successful payment plan program that is designed to fit each customer’s financial situation and ability to pay. Next month, the DWSD also plans to launch a new financial assistance program for the city’s indigent population.”

“Our goal is to have as few shut-offs as possible," said Detroit Water Department Director Sue McCormick.

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., denounced the cutoffs, calling them "draconian."

“Draconian water cutoffs are not a pathway to financial solvency,” he said. “To the contrary, actions that deny residents the ability to bathe, hydrate or prepare meals for themselves and their families create costly long-term public health challenges. These water cutoffs are not only inhumane but economically short-sighted.”

What Conyers and the U.N. apparently did not consider is that the city recently raised rates 8.7 percent in part because of the uncollected fees.

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