The Ongoing Debate Over Detroit’s Water Cutoff

Rebekah Frank


As human beings, there are a few things that we literally cannot live without. Top among that relatively short list is access to clean and safe drinking water. In places such as New York City, residents are lucky enough to simply be able to turn on their taps in order to access clean, and incredibly delicious, water. This, unfortunately, is not the reality for many people worldwide. According to the United Nations, roughly 780 million people across the globe do not have access to clean water, a fact that contributes to the deaths of 6 to 8 million people annually due to the consequences of disaster and easily avoidable water-related illnesses. These illnesses are overwhelmingly a result of a lack of access to sanitation. For example, in rural Sub-Saharan Africa, millions of people share their drinking water with animals and/or rely on wells that are breeding grounds for pathogens. Millions more use drinking water sources that are not adequately protected from contamination by outside sources, most commonly human fecal matter. This is a direct result of the fact that 36 percent of the world’s population, or about 2.5 billion people, do not have access to a bathroom that separates human waste from possible human contact or consumption. Subsequently, diarrhea is the leading cause of illness and death worldwide year after year.


When we discuss access to water, these are the kinds of statistics and problems that we generally talk about. And it is a result of these realities that, on July 28, 2010, the United Nations General Assembly, through Resolution 64/292, recognized the human right to both water and sanitation and declared that “clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realization of all human rights.”


It is easy to imagine that this is a problem that only exists in the developing world. Most of the statistics that we see relate to Africa, Asia and Latin America. The reality of the situation, however, is that lack of access to clean, safe and affordable drinking water is a universal problem that is not limited to developing countries but effects people here in the United States as well. In reading UN Resolution 64/292, it becomes clear that the General Assembly, when imagining and writing this document, cast a worldwide net when it acknowledged “the importance of equitable access to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as an integral component of the realization of all human rights” (emphasis mine). This document also reaffirmed “the responsibility of States for the promotion and protection of all human rights, which are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated, and must be treated globally, in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing and with the same emphasis.”


That last section is, for the purposes of this article, of incredible importance. In classifying human rights as universal, and defining the States’ obligations in protecting and promoting those rights, the General Assembly is effectively placing all countries on equal footing in terms of their obligations to the international community which, of course, includes their own citizens. The General Assembly then takes it one step further when it “calls upon States and international organizations to provide financial resources, capacity-building and technology transfer…in order to scale up efforts to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all.” When we look at the worldwide level, what we focus on primarily is universal access to water that is free from contamination, sometimes at the environmental level but more often at the level of human contamination due to lack of access to proper sanitation. In the United States what we see more often is contamination at the environmental level.


In many areas of the country, water is contaminated by agricultural runoff, most commonly from concentrated animal feeding operations (CATOs) which house anywhere from hundreds to millions of animals like cows, hogs or chickens. In a September 17, 2009 article in the New York Times called “Health Ills Abound as Farm Runoff Fouls Wells,” writer Charles Duhigg documents the effects of agricultural runoff in Brown County, Wisconsin.



According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), agricultural runoff is the biggest source of pollution in America’s streams and rivers and is responsible for illness in an estimated 19.5 million Americans annually. This problem is not unique to Wisconsin. There have also been reports of serious contamination of water sources due to agricultural runoffs in California, Oklahoma, Maryland and Arkansas, among others. Consumption of this contaminated water leads to all sorts of possible medical problems, most commonly diarrhea. Sound familiar? Unfortunately, this issue of water contamination in agriculture-reliant areas is an ongoing one that seems to crop up time and again at the national level.


Most recently, water contamination became a point of conversation when, on January 9, 2014, a chemical spill near Charleston, West Virginia contaminated the Elk River with a chemical called MCMH – 4-methylcyclohexane methanol – which the mining industry uses to wash rock and clay from coal before it is burned for energy. The result? People were forced to purchase bottles of water and avoid bathing or else face the possibility of rashes, severe headaches, diarrhea or other unpleasant side effects.


As infuriating as these environmental problems are, problems that could be largely avoided if governmental agencies at both the state and federal level enforced existing regulations, perhaps even more angering are the access issues that stem entirely from economics. Such has been the situation since March in Detroit, Michigan, where thousands of people who were unable to pay their bills had their water shut off as part of an aggressive campaign by Detroit water officials. This is one of the many unfortunate results of the July 18, 2013 decision by the city of Detroit to declare bankruptcy in an effort to try and stop the seemingly endless economic freefall the city has been experiencing since the 2008 financial collapse that seriously affected the already ailing auto industry.


In March, the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) announced that it would be going after delinquent accounts in an attempt to try and recoup some of the $118 million dollars owed to them by city residents and businesses. Interestingly, it seems as though the organization has been far more aggressive in shutting off domestic as opposed to commercial or industrial accounts, despite the fact that, according to the records of Detroit Water and Sewage, the top 40 industrial and commercial accounts owe the city $9.5 million. According to the Detroit MetroTimes, the department has cut service off to about 24,000 homes in the city, with 60 percent of those home making arrangements to have their water restored. That still leaves almost 10,000 homes without access to water.



In looking at the UN language on access to water, it would seem as though this is in direct violation of international human rights law. And, in reality, it is. Even so, on Monday, September 29, 2014, Judge Steven Rhodes, who is overseeing Detroit’s bankruptcy, refused to stop the city from shutting the water off for residents who could not afford to pay their bills. This was in response to a lawsuit brought earlier this year by Attorney Alice Jennings on behalf of 10 of the residents who have faced water shutoffs.


They argued that Rhodes should place a temporary restraining order on DWSD in an effort to get them to implement an income-based water affordability program as opposed to the ten-point plan launched by Mayor Mark Duggan in August. Under Duggan’s plan, residents would be required to pay their current bills plus a portion of past bills until they are caught up. Although this might help some people, many residents make the point that the problem is not that people do not want to pay their bills, it is that they simply cannot afford them. They argue that for many of them their financial situation remains the same, and therefore there is no reason to assume that they can afford their current bills plus a percentage of the past due amount. Although in his decision Judge Rhodes acknowledged that the Detroit water department has not done enough to try and help those who have been struggling economically, he stated that there is no “enforceable right” to water.


Part of the plaintiffs’ argument in front of Judge Rhodes was that the DWSD shutoffs violated the established human rights of impoverished citizens who lacked the ability to pay the bills owed the city, and who were subsequently left without access to clean water. According to the Detroit News, Judge Rhodes said that “there is no such right or law” and that there is no right to “service based on ability to pay.” Interestingly, bankruptcy law does not give Rhodes the power to force the city to take action in regards to the plaintiffs’ complaints, so he simply could have dismissed the case purely on procedural grounds. Instead, he chose to remark on lack of rights afforded US citizens under US law. Essentially what Rhodes’ comments did was pit him, and the US government, against the United Nations and place them in blatant violation of international human rights norms.


That Rhodes chose to remark is especially interesting considering that this past June, a coalition of activists appealed to the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights to intervene on behalf of the most vulnerable citizens in Detroit. Their report, which was filed with the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation on June 18th of this year, alleges that the major water crisis being faced by Detroit and its citizens is a direct result of “decades of policies that have put corporate business and profit ahead of the public good and human rights.” The report goes on to argue that the water shutoffs in Detroit:



“speaks to the deep racial divides and intractable economic and social inequality in access to service within the United States. The burden of paying for city services has fallen onto the residents who have stayed within the economically depressed city, most of whom are African-American. The residents have seen water rates rise by 119 percent within the last decade. With official, understated unemployment rates at a record high and the official, understated poverty rate at about 40 per cent, Detroit water bills are unaffordable to a significant portion of the population.”


According to a September 29th Think Progress article, following the formal request for UN intervention, “a trio of UN experts called the DWSD’s aggressive approach to a multi-million-dollar backlog of water bills ‘a violation of the human right to water and other international rights.’”


Furthermore, Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN Special Rapporteur on the issue said, “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 a genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections.” Furthermore, Leilani Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing stated, “if these water disconnections disproportionately affect African Americans they may be discriminatory, in violation of treaties the US has ratified.”


At this point it is important to restate a piece of UN Resolution 64/292 where it acknowledges “the importance of equitable access to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as an integral component of the realization of all human rights.” This makes clear that, in the case of Detroit, not only is the denial of access of drinking water to thousands of impoverished people a violation of the human right to water, but also the lack of equity within that limited access is a violation. It is interesting to note that since the founding of the UN in 1945, the United States has consistently been the largest financial supporter of the organization. Perhaps this is why the U.S. government feels justified condemning the human rights violations in other countries while simultaneously, and publicly, denying human rights to its own citizens. Detroit, unfortunately, seems to be just another example of the laundry list of human rights violations that the US government refuses to fix, or even to acknowledge.


Following the Elk River contamination crisis, West Virginia Senate Majority Leader John Unger said, “Martin Luther King said that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Why should anybody care about what goes on in West Virginia? Because it’s the canary in the mineshaft. If you ignore it in West Virginia, it’s coming, it’s going to continue to build, and the issue is:  Should our country have the debate about our rights to the very basic infrastructure that sustains us? Or should we continue to ignore it?” What is happening in Detroit right now is happening to all of us. If the human rights of the impoverished in Detroit are completely ignored, then we can only assume that we will be next. They are the canary in the mineshaft and it is time that we hold our country accountable to the standards it signs on to, and to the standards to which every other State is expected to abide.


Author Bio:

Rebekah Frank, a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine, is a Brooklyn blogger and bartender. She writes on topics ranging from the service industry to feminism to everything in between at Follow her @franklyrebekah.

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