By Kate Abbey-Lambertz, Huffington Post
Detroit’s been shutting off water to customers who reportedly can’t afford to pay their bills, and United Nations experts said Wednesday it’s a violation of human rights.
The UN responded after a coalition of activist groups submitted a report to its Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner last week, detailing water shutoffs and extreme consequences for families in the city who can’t afford to pay their bills and have had to go without water.
Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department began shutting off water to customers who were behind on payments this spring, cutting service for 3,000 in April and 4,500 in May. Around 45,000 shutoff warnings were sent each month.
Three UN experts recently criticized the department’s aggressive practice, saying in a press release that stopping access to water for those who can’t afford to pay “constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights.”
“Disconnections due to non-payment are only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying,” said Catarina de Albuquerque, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation. “In other words, when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections.”
A water department official told MLive the effort is meant to collect debts and get people onto payment plans, not turn people’s water off. According to the Associated Press, spokeswoman Curtrise Garner said more than half of those affected by shutoffs paid their accounts in full within several days.
“If people are being proactive, we work with them,” Garner told the AP. “But if we don’t hear anything, we don’t know if they are not paying or if they won’t pay.”
The department has 17,000 customers on payment plans and is starting a new assistance plan for struggling customers next month, according to The Detroit News.
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