Detroit's Water Crisis: Shutoff leaves thousands without running water

Demonstrators protest against the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department last month. Since March, more than 18,000 households have had their water shut off because they are behind in their bills. (Getty Images/Joshua Lott)

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In a massive effort, the city has turned off the water on people who haven't paid their bills. Many have now paid up, but there remain thousands in urban Detroit with no access to running water -- and the UN says it's a violation of human rights.

"The Detroit water situation is resulting in violations of the right to housing and the right to water. Disconnections for non-payment are only allowed when it can be shown that the resident has the ability to pay."

Leilani Farha, UN Special Representative on Adequate Housing

Since March, more than 18,000 households have had their water shut off because they are behind in their bills. The City declared bankruptcy a little over a year ago. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department says it is owed approximately $90-million in back payments and it simply can't afford to let it continue.

About 60 per cent of the people who had their water cut off have now had it restored after making a payment. And yesterday, the city extended a temporary moratorium on any further cutoffs.

But that still leaves thousands who either haven't -- or can't -- pay their bills.

"When households are charged 10, 15, 20 per cent of their income for their water bills, you run into a situation as Detroit is now, where you can charge that all you want but you can never really hope to collect it."

Roger Colton, Consultant with Fisher Sheehan and Colton, specializing in the economics of utilities

Freelance journalist Zak Rosen is based in Detroit. He talked with some of the people affected. This is his documentary Water: A Right? Or a Privilege?

To talk about the situation in Detroitt, we were also joined by two guests:

- Nolan Finley is the Editorial Page Editor of The Detroit News.

- John Nichols is the Washington correspondent for The Nation Magazine.

We requested an interview with Detroit's Water and Sewerage Department. The Department referred us to the Mayor's office. We left several messages there but did not receive a reply.

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This segment was produced by The Current's Sujata Berry and Catherine Kalbfleisch.

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