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

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.

We invited Detroit’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, to join us on the program, but his office declined our request.

Maureen and Meera, thanks for joining us. Maureen, tell us what’s happening on the ground. People must be scratching their heads around the United States and around the world to hear this. How many people are having their water cut off in Detroit every week?

MAUREEN TAYLOR: We’re getting conflicting information. And good morning to you. We’re told that it’s anywhere from 3,000 per month to 3,000 per week. It is historical for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to not give its residents information. But at our offices at Michigan Welfare Rights, we are getting 30 to 40 calls an hour where people are saying, "I either have a water bill, and I’m afraid that my water is about to be cut off," or, "My water has already been cut off. What can you do to help us and give us some information?" So, it is scandalous.

And we live in the Great Lakes. And to have water threatened and people told that if your bill is $150 or more, you’re on a block, a chopping block, where your water is going to be turned off, in Michigan, it is particularly egregious, because a household that has welfare involvement, and water is turned off with minor children in a home, means that protective services can come in and take the children out and put them in foster care. And in a foster care home, you can earn more money as a foster parent than you can as a birth mother. It’s just scandalous what’s going on in Detroit. Just scandalous.

AMY GOODMAN: And what can families do if they don’t have water? Where do they get clean water?

MAUREEN TAYLOR: Well, again, we live in the Great Lakes, so it’s just—it’s an outrage to even have this discussion, that this kind of attack is going on. What we advise people to do is, first of all, we get information on what is the reason why you may be behind on your water bill. We have multiple agencies and organizations that we can send people to to get partial payments. We try and encourage people to set up payment plans.

But the number of people that are under attack—and again, we’re talking about blue-collar workers in Detroit. This is an orchestrated attack by banks and corporations and whatnot, in an effort to try to enrich themselves. And so, as the water department is trying to justify this egregious behavior, we didn’t have any choice. But our colleagues in Canada that suggested perhaps we should go to the U.N., we jumped at the opportunity. And we are expecting the United Nations to come to Detroit, take a look at what’s going on here and to make some kind of declarations about human rights violations. This is an outrage.

AARON MATÉ: Meera Karunananthan, you’re with the Blue Planet Project. Your group authored this report to the U.N. Can you talk about what this statement, this appeal, says?

MEERA KARUNANANTHAN: [Inaudible] the United Nations will look at the facts, look at what’s happening in Detroit, and join us in declaring this a violation of the human right to water and sanitation. If you listen to the Department of Water and Sewerage in Detroit, you would think this is—you know, this is a case of people not paying for running shoes they’ve purchased. But we’re talking about the water and sanitation services the people in Detroit are entitled to. This is their public water and sanitation utility. And so, the level of cutoffs that we’re seeing in Detroit, it’s absolutely outrageous. It is a scandal, and it is a—it’s a human rights violation. And these are not the measures that should be taken by the city to address the problem of underfunding in the—to the water and sanitation services.

AMY GOODMAN: Meera, how much—

MEERA KARUNANANTHAN: Now, we’re calling on the U.S. government, we’re calling on Congress to intervene, we’re calling on the state of Michigan to intervene, because both the federal government and the state have obligations to ensure that the rights of the people in the city of Detroit are respected.

AMY GOODMAN: Meera, how much do people pay for water in Detroit compared to other parts of the country?

MEERA KARUNANANTHAN: Well, the average—the national average is somewhere between $40 and $50 a month. In the city of Detroit, it’s something like $75 per household per month. Now, our—according to the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, that’s actually closer to, for a family of four, they’re paying $150 to $200 per month. And that’s—in a city like Detroit, that’s up to 20 percent—

AMY GOODMAN: And how much do people pay—

MEERA KARUNANANTHAN: —of the average monthly income.

AMY GOODMAN: How much do people make on average?

MEERA KARUNANANTHAN: And when you look at the number, the amount, the average household income in the city of Detroit is something like $25,000. I compared that to our situation here in Ottawa, Canada, where the average household income is in the range of $90,000, and we pay something like $50 a month for our water and sewerage bills. So, the rates are exorbitant and unaffordable in a city where the poverty rates are as high as they are in the city of Detroit.

AARON MATÉ: Maureen Taylor, I have to ask you, there’s been basically no federal aid for Detroit. There was a measure to give about $300 million that’s been proposed in private and federal funding. But seeing how banks, how auto companies got big bailouts, and Detroit was left to bleed, it’s a city that’s four-fifths black, 80 percent African-American. Do you think racism is at play here?

MAUREEN TAYLOR: Racism is always at play. People of color can never escape the shadow of the plantation. But we are moving quickly, not away from that, but we are joining this question of black and white with green. This is about greed. This is about the fact that there used to be about 1.4, 1.5 million people that lived in Detroit, and just in Detroit. And what was popular here was Dodge Main, Chevrolet Gear and Axle, Huber Avenue Foundry, Lynch Road Assembly, Rouge Plant, the great Rouge Plant, where the great, late General Baker worked for many, many years. And these factories built something called a middle class across the country.

Just where I live in Detroit alone, 400,000 manufacturing jobs have disappeared. No one can take that kind of a hit. And where did they go? They went the way of technology. That’s the technology that used to enhance labor, now replaces labor. So R2-D2 robots now work at these, quote-unquote, "factories." These dinosaurs are gone. And so those good-paying jobs left with them. And, of course, you have people of color—let’s go get them first. Of course, you have blue-collar workers—let’s go get them first.

But this is more egregious. A woman and a child living on welfare in Michigan gets $420 a month in cash assistance. That tabulates to $5,040 in a year. This no-good, trifling, backstabbing Kevyn Orr, the emergency manager, is getting a thousand dollars an hour. This man makes $8,000 in one day; and a family of two, $5,040 in a year. It’s outrageous. And then to come after folks that have lost work, that have lost jobs, that are sticking and staying in Detroit to try to help to rebuild and repopulate my city, and then to say, "What we’re going to do is turn your water off because you can’t pay for it"? Not going to tolerate this mess.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have—

MAUREEN TAYLOR: We’re not going to tolerate it.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, but we will certainly continue to cover this crucial issue. Maureen Taylor, state chair of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization. Meera Karunananthan is international water campaigner for the Blue Planet Project.

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