Water shutoffs raises prospect of public health crisis, draws international concern

By Dennis Archambault

As access to water becomes more prominent as a global issue, thousands of Detroit households with water bills more than $150 and 60 days late are facing shut-offs. According to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, around 150,000 residential accounts are delinquent. The department confirmed that 46,000 shut-off notices were sent out in May. Of those, 4,531 customers had their water service shut off. However, 60 percent of the affected customers paid their accounts and 17,000 Detroit customers are enrolled in a payment plan. The Heat and Warmth Fund (THAW) is developing an assistance program for low income home owners similar to one it has in place for heat, but it wasn’t operational by July 1.

The prospect of mass water shut-offs has raised the potential of a public health crisis impacting personal health and social hygiene. The issue has caused considerable alarm among community health advocates. It has even drawn international attention.

The United Nations (U.N.) recently announced plans to intervene in the situation, suggesting that the shut-offs may violate U.N. human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation mandates. The U.N. High Commission on Human Rights Special Rapporteur on safe water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, can make recommendations and lend “moral weight,” but has no authority, according to the Associated Press. Another U.N. official, Leilana Farha, U.S. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, has expressed concern that children are being removed from their families and homes because, without access to water, their housing is no longer considered adequate. “If these water disconnections disproportionately affect African Americans they may be discriminatory and in violation of treaties the United States has ratified.”

As with the foreclosure crisis, lack of payment of utilities stems from a social equity issue as much as personal negligence. The Nonprofit Quarterly notes, “Indebtedness isn’t always treated equally in our society. Some people get dunned incessantly by debt collectors while others seem able to run up thousands or even millions in debt but are given the latitude to extend their indebtedness until their income and assets catch up. Differences in treatment – or indifference to some of the human costs – seem to be the case with Detroit water bills.”

The Detroit Free Press and Detroit News have assumed opposite editorial perspectives. The Free Press calls it “a fiasco, an outrage, a budding humanitarian crisis, a community health risk, shortsighted, atrocious public policy.” The editorial notes that 38 percent of Detroiters live in poverty and per capita income for city residents is $14,861, with unemployment rate at 14.5 percent. Of further concern, the Free Press adds, is “that the water department’s shutoff policy is uncompromising, making no exceptions for households with infant children, elderly or disabled residents.”

The News, on the other hand, took “scofflaws” to task for not paying their bills, while agreeing that there should be programs to assist the needy. The News editorial charges, “This is not the wholesale humanitarian crisis that a United Nation’s expert claimed last week. Rather, it is one more step to demonstrate that things have changed in a city that for too long did not enforce its own laws.” The editorial adds that the city does offer assistance plans. “The narrative being pushed by community activists is that water is a right and no one should be cut off for non-payment. But even in the days of community wells and aqueducts, citizens came together and taxed themselves to pay for obtaining and delivering water. … Customers who are struggling financially have a responsibility to alert the water department to their need.”

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has initiated a petition (http://actnow.uusc.org/site/PageNavigator/Detroit_Water_Shutoffs_Petition.html) drive to discontinue the water shut-offs. The petition reads, in part:

“Water is not a luxury good. It is a basic human right due to all people, including low income individuals and families.

“As a person of conscience, I oppose water shutoffs that affect people who cannot afford to pay and whose family integrity and health are at great risk. It is morally wrong to shut off water to individuals and families, including infants, children, people living with disabilities, people who are chronically ill, and the elderly.”

Dennis Archambault is director of Public Affairs for the Detroit Wayne County Health Authority.