How Detroit's Money Woes Led To U.N.-Condemned Water Cutoffs

The United Nations says water is a human right, but should it be free? Detroit has cut off water to residents who can't pay, and the U.N. isn't happy.

How Detroit's Money Woes Led To U.N.-Condemned Water Cutoffs
Getty Images / J.D. Pooley

When we hear about U.N. intervention, we usually think about this. 

CNN: "The United Nations actually just confirmed today that a third worker of theirs has died from Ebola."

Or this.

BBC: "The United Nations is investigating the events in Syria to determine whether war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed."

But not this.

AL JAZEERA: "Today, United Nations officials condemned Detroit's controversial water shutoffs, saying they hurt the city's most vulnerable residents."

Yes, the U.N. sometimes turns its focus on First World nations, especially those with major poverty problems.

And rarely is that problem more obvious in America than in Detroit, where 38 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. That's more than one in every three Detroit citizens.

Despite the fact that the city is surrounded by water, Detroit is in the middle of a water crisis. The city is broke, and its citizens owe millions of dollars to its utility services.

So, in July, Detroit started shutting off the tap to residents who hadn't paid — 27,000 people so far this year. 

Now, this is an effect of a lot of other problems facing the city. Massive unemployment has not only led to an exodus from Detroit, meaning fewer utilities customers and higher costs. It also means many of the people still left in Detroit simply don't have the money for bills.

Visiting Detroit Monday, a U.N. official said, "It is contrary to human rights to disconnect water from people who simply do not have the means to pay their bills," and that the cutoffs affect "the most vulnerable and poorest."

At this point, some might ask, "Who said water was a human right?" Actually, the U.N. has — but it's a relatively recent thing. In November 2013, the U.N. General Assembly, including the U.S., voted to recognize water and sanitation as human rights.

But most governments, like the U.S., do have utility services that charge citizens for water. So, water is an internationally-recognized human right, but it's rarely free.

The point being made by the U.N. now is that, without jobs, the people of Detroit have no way of paying for that water. And that it's unfair to increase costs — which the city has done — on Detroit's dwindling population. The city's government has yet to respond.

This video includes images from Getty Images.