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

14 responses

  1. Service cut off for delinquent accounts reflecting significant past due balances after multiple warnings to pay, and offers of opportunity to enter into payment plans.
    Happens all the time.
    So what’s the news story?

    1. News story is in that those SAME taxpayers are on the hook for paying for a brand new Red Wing stadium. The billionaire Ilitch family will get all revenues from that new publicly financed Red Wings arena. Let Them Drink Big Gulps!!!

  2. I have lived in Detroit for 16 years and pay my water bill on
    time each month which runs around $40/month. why aren’t people in Detroit paying their water bills on time? If you want clean purified water you need to pay for it or else go to the
    river or lake, collect your water and boil it to drink and use. This is what
    happens all over the world. Clean purified water is not handed out for free
    anywhere in the world, why should people living in Detroit who don’t happen to
    pay their water bills receive free water. Poor people in other countries are in
    the exact same situation, they can’t afford it and no one gives it to them,
    clean water is not for free, it costs money to purify the water.

    1. I don’t know where you get the information that “clean purified water is not handed out anywhere in the world”. That statement is misinformed. Most of my country (New Zealand) does exactly that.

  3. Joe Louis Arena, home of the Detroit Red Wings, owed $82,255 as of
    April. Ford Field, where the Detroit Lions play, owed more than $55,000.
    City-owned golf courses owed more than $400,000. As of July 2, none had
    paid. NYT 7/3/2014

    guess the attitude of “why pay my water bill?” includes businesses as well as individuals.

  4. I have used well water and city water. My water runs around $70.00 a month. If I do not pay it why should I have it? My alternative is to dig a well. I bet the shut off notices went to people who had cell phone service, not a basic human right either.

  5. I did a simple check. I used a 12 ounce cup to collect 12 ounces of water from my air conditioner drain. 30 minutes collected 1 gallon of crystal clear water.
    I have now collected about 20 gallons of water from my single unit air conditioner. Water from the house is available 24/7 with the air conditioner running.
    I took PVC pipe to raise the air conditioner drain about 4 inches to drain into a plastic gallon bucket. I have an other container that holds about 8 gallons.
    A simple kit of PVC pipe, 1″ connector and 1/2″ pipe, a 1 gallon plastic bucket and another container to hold extra water for use.
    Government agencies, hospitals, large businesses as Lowes, Wal-Mart have very large air conditioners that run almost 24/7 with there water running onto the ground or parking lot to evaporate into the air from heat.
    This water can be collected similar to rain run off and used to flush toilets, water grass wash ones body and boiled one could safely drink it etc..
    Each home or place as an apartment or hospital, government office, Lowes etc. has water, humidity, in the air that can be collected from an air conditioners drain.
    Lastly, a dehumidifier can collect about 65 pints ad day from a house.
    How much water can a dehumidifier collected water from the outside atmosphere in a day in Detroit, MI ?
    Groups can acquire water for joint a container for 1000s of gallons of water to use daily.

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