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Activists Ask the U.N. to Weigh in on Detroit


"How do you go to the bathroom? How do you take showers? How do you clean yourself?"

Will the U.N. step in to hydrate Detroit?

Close to half of the more than 320,000 accounts in the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department are delinquent, the Detroit Free Press reported, and in March the department announced it would begin shutting off water to up to 3,000 delinquent accounts per week.

“There are families that have gone months and months without water,” nonprofit development director Mia Cupp told the Free Press. “You can only imagine, how do you go to the bathroom? How do you take showers? How do you clean yourself?"

Last week, activists submitted a message to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, alleging that Detroit's high water rates are causing a humanitarian crisis.

"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 letter states. "These residents have seen water rates rise by 119 per cent 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."

"What we see is a violation of the human right to water," Meera Karunananthan, an international campaigner with the Blue Planet Project, told Al Jazeera America. "The U.S. has international obligations in terms of people’s right to water, and this is a blatant violation of that right. We’re hoping the U.N. will put pressure on the federal government and the state of Michigan to do something about it."

The Blue Planet Project is one of the groups behind the appeal to the U.N.

Water comes up from the ground after a water main broke in Detroit on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Detroit Free Press, Eric Seals)

Water and sewerage department debts account for roughly $5 billion of Detroit's $18 billion in outstanding debt, Al Jazeera reported, and while the department has pursued other strategies including an attempted integration with suburban water systems, it's finding itself left with few options besides raising rates and cutting freeloaders.

"We really don't want to shut off anyone’s water, but it’s really our duty to go after those who don’t pay, because if they don’t pay then our other customers pay for them," department spokesperson Curtrise Garner told Al Jazeera. "That’s not fair to our other customers."

Last Tuesday, the Detroit city council approved an 8.7 percent water rate hike.

The water and sewerage department sent out more than 44,000 shutoff notices and cut off water to 3,025 properties in April, the Free Press reported, and cut off another 4,531 accounts in May.

Featured image via Shutterstock

Follow Zach Noble (@thezachnoble) on Twitter

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