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Detroit Activists Seek U.N.'s Help as City Shuts Off Water to Thousands of Residents

Activists have been organizing against the city's water shutoffs, saying they target Detroit’s most vulnerable families.
 
 
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Activists in Detroit have appealed to the United Nations over the city’s move to shut off the water of thousands of residents. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department says half of its 323,000 accounts are delinquent and has begun turning off the taps of those who do not pay bills that total above $150 or that are 60 days late. Since March, up to 3,000 account holders have had their water cut off every week. The Detroit water authority carries an estimated $5 billion in debt and has been the subject of privatization talks. In a submission to the United Nations special rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, activists say Detroit is trying to push through a private takeover of its water system at the expense of basic rights. We speak to Maureen Taylor of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and Meera Karunananthan, international water campaigner for the Blue Planet Project.

Watch a video interview with Taylor and Karunananthan, followed by a transcript.

AARON MATÉ: Activists in Detroit have appealed to the U.N. over the city’s move to shut off the water of thousands of residents. The Detroit water authority says half of its 323,000 accounts are delinquent. It has begun turning off the taps of those who do not pay bills that total above $150 or that are 60 days late. Since March, up to 3,000 account holders have had their taps shut off per week. The Detroit water authority carries an estimated $5 billion in debt and has been the subject of talks to privatize.

Activists have been organizing against the water shutoffs, saying they target Detroit’s most vulnerable families. This is [an unidentified protester].

PROTESTER: I want to tell you why six kids on this porch when they came to shut off the water, and their parents had to run to try to find how they’re going to pay their water bill. Another woman, she’s pregnant. She has a two-year-old. She’s holding a bill for $400 in her hand, and she’s begging the man, "Don’t turn off my water." A pregnant woman with a $400 bill. You’re going to close the water off for a woman with a $400 bill who’s pregnant and a two-year-old. Shame on you!

AMY GOODMAN: That was [an unidentified activist protesting the water shutoffs]. In a submission to the United Nations special rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, activists say Detroit is trying to push through a private takeover of its water system at the expense of basic rights. The group Food & Water Watch said, "By denying water service to thousands, Detroit is violating the human right to water." The poverty rate in Detroit is approximately 40 percent, and people have seen their water bills increase by 119 percent within the last decade. Most of the residents are African American. Two-thirds of those impacted by the water shutoffs involve families with children.

Meanwhile, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, or DWSD, had defended its actions, saying the water shutoffs are necessary for alleviating the department’s debts. This is Greg Eno, the public affairs specialist at DWSD.

GREG ENO: We’re trying to work with people more aggressively—let’s put it that way—to try to get them either on payment plans or to get them paid. And it has worked. It has—we’ve increased our—we’ve lowered our debt a little bit by doing that.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Detroit, Michigan, where we’re joined by Maureen Taylor, the state chair of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization. In Ottawa, Canada, we’re joined by Meera Karunananthan, an international water campaigner for the Blue Planet Project. Her group filed the submission to the U.N. special rapporteur regarding the right to drinking water in Detroit.

 
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