Canadians fight to keep water on for 79,000 in Detroit

Detroit is shutting off water at a rate of 3,000 residents per week. Now, a Canadian group is leading the charge to bring water back to the city, which filed for bankruptcy a year ago.

City shutting off water to 3,000 delinquent accounts each week

Detroit resident Nicole Hill owes nearly $6,000 US on her water bill and showers at the homes of friends and family. She's among people in the bankrupt city who are struggling to maintain everyday life. (Paul Sancya/Associated Press)

Thousands of Detroit residents are facing a reality rarely seen around the Great Lakes: Life without water.

But a Canadian group is leading the charge against a controversial plan to stop water service on delinquent accounts.

The bankrupt city is shutting off water at a rate of 3,000 residents per week. It also recently increased water rates by nine per cent.

Nearly half of the 329,000 accounts are in arrears and the average cost of a Detroit water bill is double the national average.

Maude Barlow, chair of the Council of Canadians, flagged Detroit's plan to deal with delinquent accounts to the United Nations earlier this year. The UN calls the plan to shut off water a clear violation of human rights.

"I've seen this in the poorest countries in the world," Barlow said. "This is what we call failed states, but to see this in North America, it's a disgrace."

Detroit is $18 billion US in debt. About $12 billion of that is unsecured, meaning there aren't taxes or other revenue streams to pay it.

There's about $6 billion in Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) debt, which is secured by water bill payments.

There is a proposal to contract out the water business to a private regional player.

'It's appalling'

The Council of Canadians say many observers believe shutting off water is an attempt to appeal to potential private investors.

"We're sitting on the Great Lakes, supplying a fifth of the world’s surface water. It’s appalling," Barlow said.

Barlow will be part of a convoy bringing what she called "good Canadian, public, clean water" across the river to Detroit on July 24.

"Our water is their water," Barlow said.

Maude Barlow will lead a convoy of Canadians bringing water to Detroit on July 24. (Council of Canadians)

She is also preparing an appeal to the White House.

"We’re going right to the top," Barlow said.

She has one question for President Barack Obama.

"There are potentially 500,000 people who are going to spend a good part of the summer, in the heat, in the summer, without water. Is that OK with you?" she said.

Barlow has toured Detroit, documented her findings and appealed to the United Nations.

Nicole Hill is behind on her water bill. Her toilets are empty and her taps don't run.

"I turn it on, nothing comes out. You don't hear anything but the squeaking of the faucets," Hill said.

She owes nearly $6,000. To have her taps turned back on, she will have to pay $4,449.

Hill, who is on disability, says she has paid as much as she can.

"I've pretty much used most of my reserve and most of my food budget on purchasing water," she said. "Right now, I'm just trying not to lose my mind."

Hill voluntarily sends her three children to stay with their grandmother.

"They're not able to stay in the home. Technically, I shouldn't be staying here, but I am because we have break-ins around here as well," Hill said. "I have to go to someone else's house to shower."

Leilani Farha, the UN's expert on the right to adequate housing, is concerned social services is removing children from their families and homes because, without access to water, their housing is no longer considered adequate.

Critics, such as Barlow, say the city isn't offering solutions to its struggling customers.

Barlow wants Detroit to set up an affordability program, while at the same time aggressively pursuing corporate and business accounts she claims are $30 million in arrears.

Assistance available

Detroit says it's ready and willing to help.

"We will continue to provide them service and help them get the assistance they need," said Darryl Latimer, who speaks for the city's water and sanitation department.

Latimer says the city will work with people who legitimately cannot pay their bills.

The DWSD says it currently has more than 17,000 Detroit customers enrolled in a successful payment plan program that is "designed to fit each customer’s financial situation and ability to pay."

In July, the DWSD also plans to launch a new financial assistance program for the city’s indigent population.

The United Nations says the only reason to shut off residents' water is to prove they're capable of paying, but choosing not to.

"When there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnection,” said Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN's expert on the human right to water and sanitation.

Latimer says there are 79,000 delinquent residential accounts in Detroit.

By the end of May, he says the water was cut off to 12,500 residents.

Latimer says the department is trying to distinguish between those who can pay but choose not to, and those who legitimately cannot pay the bill.

"We want them to come in so that we can assist them so that they can maintain their service," he said.

'As few shut-offs as possible'

DWSD director Sue McCormick said the goal is "to have as few shut-offs as possible."

McCormick also said that among those who do receive shut-off notices, only a small fraction of them are actually cut off.

In May, for example, DWSD sent out 46,000 notices. Of those, only 4,531 customers — less than 10 per cent of the total — had their water service cut for any period of time, according to the department.

Within 24 hours, 60 per cent of the affected customers paid their accounts in full, the department said.

“Many of the properties that we shut off are actually vacant structures, not occupied homes,” McCormick said.

Meanwhile, the Detroit Water Brigade is a group of volunteers bringing water to those who need it.

They are stockpiling bottled water and affordable rainwater collection systems in order to provide potable water, and water for sanitary use.

A distribution centre has been established, where people can come and get water to take home. Home deliveries are also being made.

"I understand that the water department needs money, but they cannot go around just doing unfashionable things like cutting off people's water and leaving us in an unfortunate situation," said Meeko Williams, an activist with the Detroit Water Brigade. "It's going to be hot all this week, and we need to get people the adequate water supplies they need to stay hydrated."