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Water is a human right, and not just in Detroit

29 July 2014
The heat is on in Detroit, where the public water utility is cutting off water supply for non-payers. This new policy of water shutoffs, leaving thousands of families without access to running water, has sparked a mobilisation with global implications.

Three experts with the United Nations Human Rights Council commenting on Detroit said, "Disconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights." The US government may be called to account by the UN for allowing this practice.

Detroit is surrounded by the Great Lakes, the biggest source of freshwater in North America. Yet the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is scheduling 3,000 service shutoffs per week and has paid a construction company $5 million to do this dirty work.

The city of Detroit declared bankruptcy in July 2013. The Republican governor of the state of Michigan appointed an Emergency Financial Manager with authority to rewrite Detroit’s contracts and liquidate the city’s assets – which means he can tear up labour contracts, reduce pension pay-outs and privatise city services. 

Public service workers are once more being made to pay for the corporate-financial sector control of our governments.  

On 25 July, Paul Moist, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees – CUPE – and Maude Barlow, chairperson of the Council of Canadians led a group of Canadians from Windsor, Ontario across the Ambassador Bridge to join up with their Detroit, Michigan counterparts.

“If Wall Street banks can be bailed out, then Detroit citizens can and should be assisted by their governments,” said Paul Moist to rally supporters, assembled at the iconic Spirit of Detroit Statue.

“By denying water service to thousands, Detroit is violating the human right to water,” said Maude Barlow. “After decades of policies that put businesses and profits ahead of the public good, the city now has a major crisis on its hands. It is shocking and abominable that anyone would be subjected to these conditions.”

On 18 July, thousands rallied under the banner “Fight! Fight! Fight! Water is a human right!”, including National Nurses United, whose co-president Jean Ross declared : “For optimal health in our daily lives, we need clean water for drinking. Infants, children, and the elderly are particularly vulnerable; they are more susceptible to dehydration, infection, and disease without access to water… We demand the guarantee that all Detroit residents have immediate and full access to clean water.”   

A month earlier, the UN experts were notified of this issue.  

Rosa Pavanelli, General Secretary of Public Services International (PSI) said :  “Water is a human right. The city of Detroit must not shut off water just because people can’t afford to pay.  There are other solutions and the City, State and National governments must work together to immediately resolve this crisis.  PSI applauds the unions and the hundreds of activists who are organising in Detroit. Bringing this struggle for justice and equity to global attention makes all of us stronger.”  

Many suspect that the shutoffs are part of the process to prepare the water services for privatisation. The shutoffs would allow the City to show a stronger financial perspective to potential privateers.

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