Today, two UN experts, Catarina de Albuquerque, the special rapporteur on the human right to drinking water and sanitation and Leilani Farha, the special rapporteur on housing, will visit Detroit Michigan on Monday, October 20 to assess the charges that water cut-offs violate the human right to water and sanitation. This is a very important development in the on-going struggle for water justice in Detroit and the experts will be welcomed by the civil society movements there.
While water cut-offs for non-payment of water bills are nothing new in Detroit, the practice took a serious turn for the worse last March when the emergency manager, appointed to administer the newly "bankrupt" city, announced he would commence with an aggressive plan to cut water services to 3,000 residences a week throughout the summer. (No corresponding plan was set up to cut the water to delinquent industries and golf courses that had not paid their bills either.)
Had this plan succeeded, as many as half a million people, mostly low income African Americans, would have been without water now. An international outcry led to a temporary, summer-long moratorium on the cut-offs, but not before at least 24,000 poor people lost their water services. Without this public outcry, the situation would have been far, far worse.
For me personally, this story has been a vindication of two decades of work to have water and sanitation recognised as human rights on par with the rights cited in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. I served as Senior Advisor to the 63rd President of the UN General Assembly and worked with a team of people and the government of Bolivia to have the UN General Assembly recognize the human rights to water and sanitation, which it did on July 28, 2010. Two months later, the UN Human Rights Council clarified the meaning of this resolution, including the obligations on all governments not to remove water rights already established, such as is being done in Detroit.
Since then, much of my work has been with communities around the world struggling to use the resolution to access their water rights. Within a year of the UN resolution, for instance, the Kalahari Bushmen of Botswana successfully used it to argue for their right to water after years of harassment by a government determined to push them out of the desert where diamonds had been discovered. When they tried to return, the government destroyed their water bore wells. Recognizing the importance of the new UN stand on the right to water, the high court in Botswana granted the Bushmen the right to have their water restored and ordered compensation for the hardship they endured without it.
One such trip was to Detroit last May for a public event and a meeting of key organizations and community groups to talk about just how to get their story out to the world. To that date, very little mainstream media had taken notice of the cut-offs, even in the U.S. I made the obvious point that, had the residents been middle class white people, there would have been a public outcry and a flood of media.
Determined to take this outside Michigan and even the U.S., I advised using the UN resolution just as the Kalahari Bushmen and others have done. Last June, the Council of Canadians, the Detroit People's Water Board, the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and Washington-based Food and Water Watch submitted a report to the UN special rapporteur on the human right to water and sanitation urging her to take immediate action to help restore water services and halt further service disconnections in Detroit.
Within a week de Albuquerque, Farha, and Philip Alston, the UN expert on extreme poverty and human rights, stated that the disconnection of water services due to inability to pay constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights. De Albuquerque has also sent a report and recommendations regarding Detroit to President Obama.
Suddenly, the media, both internationally and in the US, was on this story! How could a "First World" country that gives aid to poor countries for just such situations, allow thousands in an American city situated on the Great Lakes to go without essential water services? Reports that Detroit residents pay more than twice the national average for water services vindicated the position of the groups fighting the cut-offs and outrage was expressed from many organizations and media pundits. The ensuing outcry led to the moratorium on cut-offs and prompted the up-coming visit of the UN experts.
What greets them is a city filled with tensions and anger as the water disconnections have re-started. Further, Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes recently refused a request to block the city from further disconnections while residents and officials come up with a plan of action to tackle the issue of payments. Judge Steven basically contradicted himself by saying on one hand that he "lacked the power" to issue a water shut-off moratorium but then declared that residents do not have an "enforceable right to water," let alone services "based on ability to pay."
This ruling directly contradicts both the UN resolution on water and sanitation and its interpretation by the Human Rights Council and Catarina de Albuquerque. It is essential that this judgement not be allowed to stand uncontested. Already at the UN, there have been attempts to backtrack on the commitment to the human right to water and sanitation as the next round of Millennium Development Goals are being developed. It is crucial that what is happening in Detroit - and in other cities, not only in the global South but in Europe and the U.S. - be named as what it is: a clear violation of the most basic human right, the right to water for life.
Detroit is the canary in the coalmine. As the gap between rich and poor continues to grow everywhere and the price of essential services such as water continues to rise, we will see more cut-offs and more evictions and that will happen right here in North America. This cannot be allowed to stand.
When the United Nations General Assembly recognized the human right to water and sanitation, the human race took a giant evolutionary step forward. In a world of declining water sources and growing inequality, we had better get this right before millions more "legally" have their water services removed.
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We combed through Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr's 150-page-plus restructuring plan he released to the public in June 2013, weeks before the city's bankruptcy filing, after meeting with bondholders. Orr met with those creditors to negotiate Detroit's structural long-term debt, now said to total over $18 billion. Along with finances, the plan proposes 10 years' worth of improvements, priorities and changes that will affect residents, businesses, neighborhoods and visitors. Click through the slideshow to read our analysis of how Detroit could change after bankruptcy. You can see the nitty-gritty details for yourself by reading the full report here.
Mayor Dave Bing launched a program in April 2010 with the goal of demolishing 10,000 vacant structures by the end of his term. Over 5,000 of those abandoned buildings have been torn down, with the remainder scheduled to go by the end of 2013. But there was never enough money to fully rid Detroit of its blighted buildings. Orr's report says a funding gap of $40 million exists before Bing's goal can be completed. And while 10,000 demolitions is an insanely high number, Orr's report says that only covers 13 percent of the city's vacant buildings, and 26 percent of those that have been deemed dangerous.
Orr's restructuring plan presents a number of ways the city can speed up blight removal. One tactic involves coordinating and simplifying the myriad local, regional and national agencies and statutes that regulate demolitions. Another priority is moving blighted land through the demolition process faster, in order to return those properties to private ownership (Pages 72 and 73). Police and fire departments will integrate their data so demolitions can be targeted to reduce crime and arson. Orr's budget calls for $50 million annually in 2014 and 2015 to battle blight, to be increased to $100 million each year for 2016 through 2018. Some of that money will have to be raised through grants and public-private partnerships.
According to the city's preliminary analysis, Detroit hasn't kept up on its obligations to beneficiaries of the General Retirement System and Detroit's Police & Fire Retirement System. By how much? A staggering $3.5 billion, says Orr, who writes, "At this level of underfunding, the City would have to contribute approximately $200 million to $350 million annually to fully fund currently accrued, vested benefits. Such contributions will not be made under the plan."
Under Orr's plan, pension funds would receive a proportional (pro rata) share of $2 billion in notes that the city would issue. But since that share of $2 billion won't equal the total amount of unfunded pension costs, the report notes, pensioners should expect "significant cuts in accrued, vested pension amounts for both active and currently retired persons." According to the Detroit Free Press, retiree health benefits will likely be transferred to modified medical benefit plans that will come into effect with the Affordable Care Act. Those over the age of 65 would be transitioned to Medicare.
Hiring a new police chief was the first task on Kevyn Orr's Detroit Police checklist, but it's not the only change he recommends. Orr envisions using a data-driven approach to restructure DPD from top-to-bottom. Another priority is improving officer morale and giving the force the tools they need to do their jobs: bulletproof vests, tasers, vehicles and functional IT. He's also a fan of the "Broken Windows" policing theory piloted last year in the city's Rosedale Park neighborhood. In total, Orr plans to spend $26 million more on DPD in 2014, with an additional $66 million investment over the next four years.
It should come as no surprise to readers that Detroit is bonded to the hilt. Creditors may take a huge hit on payments from the city, reportedly as little as 10 cents on the dollar. Orr has stopped paying some debts entirely, and his plan calls for reinvesting that money into city services after bankruptcy.
Aging fleets of fire engines and facilities to maintain them threaten the impact of the Detroit Fire Department, which responds to around 30,000 calls every year. The restructuring plan calls for at least $6 million in additional investment over the next five years, with an $18.4 million facility investment in 2017. But the restructuring plan doesn't talk about hiring any more fire investigators -- as of Dec. 2012, the department only had 12 on staff to investigate more than 5,000 suspicious fires set in the city's neighborhoods every year.
The restructuring plan mentions that DDOT, Detroit's underfunded bus system, could eventually be merged with a private company or SMART, the suburban public transportation system. There's also talk of bringing DDOT under the control of the new regional transit authority. A consultant is apparently studying long-term solutions, including outsourcing (Pages 74 and 75). While it could make more sense long-term to have all of the region's transit under one umbrella, the RTA is too new to make that determination and doesn't yet have funding. In the event of a merger, gains in savings and efficiency may be balanced with layoffs.
Managing and maintaining the 982-acre Belle Isle Park costs the city of Detroit some $6 million annually. Orr's verdict on Belle Isle comes as no surprise: He says the city "intends to enter into lease transaction with State on generally the same terms as the State’s prior proposal," though no timetable is given (Page 87). That means "Detroit's crown jewel" is slated to become a state park managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Under the previous 30-year lease proposal, pedestrians and bikers would still be able to access the park for free. Motor vehicles would have to pay an annual $11 Recreation Passport fee to the MDNR, good for accessing any state park.
Orr proposes possibly transitioning to "paperless" transactions at the 36th District Court (Page 73). Welcome to the 21st century, guys!
Orr's report proposes levying an income tax for reverse commuters -- those who live in Detroit but work outside the city (Page 81). The City loses approximately $30 to $45 million of income tax revenue every year, claimed to be 15 to 20 percent of the total tax collected, from reverse commuter non-filers. Expect new legislation to tax these residents.
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