Detroit Water and Sewage Department Issues Shut-Off Notices to 46,000

running waterIs access to clean water a fundamental human right? According to the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights, not exactly. But if you ask George McGraw, the founder and executive director of the DIGDEEP Right to Water Project, the answer is a resounding ‘yes.’

The goal of McGraw, who is also an international human rights lawyer, and DIGDEEP is not just to increase access to clean water or educate people about water issues, but also to fundamentally change the way we think about water — starting at home.

“When it comes to water it is really easy to silo people into groups, to treat other people as beneficiaries and see ourselves as donors,” McGraw told Triple Pundit after speaking at the Ford Trends conference in Detroit last week. “As a human rights organization, we really try to break down those barriers and get people to think about these issues differently.”

Our conversation was especially timely — as we talked next to an indoor fountain at a pricey hotel, thousands of homes in the city outside were without running water. Starting in March, the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) sent out shut-off notices to 46,000 homes for overdue bills, arguing that people can afford to pay, but refuse.

At $75, the average monthly water bill in Detroit is close to double the national average.

To date DWSD says it has cancelled service for 4,500 accounts, but this number could rise. On June 24, the U.N. called Detroit’s cutoffs to people that cannot afford to pay “an affront to human rights.” It also warned that over the next few months as may as 30,000 households could be disconnected from water services.

In 2010, the U.N. adopted a non-binding resolution to recognize access to clean water and sanitation as a basic human right. Citing concerns on the effect of the resolution on other U.N. efforts, as well as the legal implications of the resolution, the United States was one of 41 countries to abstain from voting on that resolution.

Detroit may be the first city in the U.S. to encounter mass shut-offs, but McGraw warns that this may not be such a rare scenario in the future. DIGDEEP, which has built water access projects in Africa and Asia, is refocusing its efforts on domestic issues, making it the only water rights NGO working on a national basis in America. It uses a two-pronged approach: building water infrastructure projects for Americans that lack access, and spreading water-rights and conservation awareness more broadly.

For their first well project stateside, DIGDEEP is focusing on the American Indian population, the group hardest hit by water poverty in the U.S., with a pilot project on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico. While only 0.6 percent of the general population in America lacks access to water and/or wastewater disposal, that rate rises to 13 percent among the American Indian population. The pilot, which includes a central well, a truck distribution system and in-home water storage, will reach about 250 homes to start.

Prior to the DIGDEEP project, community members collected water from snowfall in the winter and in the summer from contaminated windmills used to fill livestock troughs. Mining activities in the area have left behind uranium pollution as far as 2,000 feet underground. While boiling water will get rid of any bacteria, it makes uranium levels more concentrated. The pilot will cost about $500,000, almost half of which will go toward drilling a well deep enough to get past the uranium contamination.

Between the pollution, high altitude and a hesitance among the community to trust outsiders, McGraw says the New Mexico project is, in some ways, more difficult than the work they did in South Sudan or Cameroon.

“But it’s a lot more rewarding too,” he said. “In the end, we are Americans working for Americans.”

McGraw and his team are seeking to reach other Americans through their 4-Liter Challenge, an annual call for people to spend four days limiting their daily water use — for everything from cleaning to drinking to cooking — to just four liters, the same amount nearly 1 billion people around the world live on every day. Every October, DIGDEEP invites people to take the challenge, raise money and gain a little empathy for the water-poor.

This year, the organization will expand the challenge with a grade 6-12 school curriculum and a new Web tool. The introduction for the curriculum is written by the Catarina de Albuquerque, the U.N. special rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation.

Nationwide, domestic use makes up just 10 percent of overall water use. At 70 percent, agriculture is the biggest water hog, followed by industrial use at 20 percent.

But McGraw sees the home as the most powerful nexus for change.

“The people that run farms and the people that run factories are most affected at home. If we can get them to change the way they think about water in their homes, and change the way their consumers or their investors think about water, then it becomes a lot easier to change the behavior of agriculture and industry,” he said.

For thousands of Detroiters, water is certain to be a big topic at home throughout the summer.

“We need to learn the lesson that we didn’t learn when we didn’t put water in the Declaration of Human Rights,” said McGraw. But its an issue that goes beyond international doctrines. What we need, he says, is “to establish a clear legal and ethical principle — not just in our laws and in our countries, but in our minds and our attitudes.”

Image credit: Flickr, Steve Johnson

Lauren Zanolli

Lauren is a freelance writer based in New Orleans. She has covered a wide array of geographies and topics, from economic and business developments in the Arabian Gulf, to arts and culture in Turkey, to social enterprise and the microfinance sector in Southeast Asia. She's also worked on the business side of things, with two years experience in strategy and marketing at a large renewable energy firm. Keep in touch: @laurenzanolli and lauren.zanolli@gmail.com.