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Everyone in Detroit Should Have Access To Clean Water

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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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