Sam Halpert, PSJD Fellow 2014 – 2015
First, the news:
Yesterday afternoon, two UN-appointed human rights investigators with mandates to understand and develop the human right to adequate housing and the human right to water (respectively) concluded their three-day investigation into Detroit’s ongoing humanitarian crisis with a press conference at the Crowne Plaza Riverfront Hotel.
According to their press release, the UN experts were “deeply startled” by the magnitude of people affected: “thousands of households are living in fear that their water may be shut off at any time without due notice, that they may have to leave their homes and that children may be taken by child protection services as houses without water are deemed uninhabitable for children.” As the UN News Center reports, the Special Rapporteur on the human right to water was particularly blunt: “It is contrary to human rights to disconnect water from people who simply do not have the means to pay their bills.” The UN investigators called on the City of Detroit, the Federal government, and other lawmaking authorities to take a variety of steps to remedy Detroit’s problems and to protect against similar vulnerabilities elsewhere.
When people ask me what I would do if I could work on anything, I don’t blink: Water Affordability. This moment seems a perfect time to grab my first soapbox. Every once in awhile, I’ll take a break from more typical PSJD blogging to write about issues that matter to me personally as an advocate. This is a big one. The recent UN visit to Detroit invites a few questions which I’ll try to address in this post: First, is access to water for domestic uses a human right? Second, are thousands of people in Detroit really without the means to pay their bills? And third, why are some of the UN’s recommendations aimed at government actors generally—isn’t this a Detroit problem? In brief: yes, yes, and no.
The Human Right to Water – An Emergent Norm
Access to water for drinking and sanitation is a human right. It is explicitly mentioned in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights has discussed at length the right’s implicit presence within the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’ (ICESCR) “right to an adequate standard of living.” Within the last few years, the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council have adopted resolutions formally recognizing the human right to water.
Granted, UN resolutions are not binding, and the United States has not ratified either CEDAW or the ICESCR. That’s likely why the Special Rapporteur’s comments yesterday were carefully shaded, discussing Detroit’s disconnections as “contrary to,” rather than “a violation of,” human rights. That doesn’t make her wrong. The idea that human beings have a right to water for limited domestic purposes (drinking, cooking, washing, sanitation) and that states must progressively realize this right among the people they govern is an increasingly well-accepted international norm. Other countries may not have the means to provide water, but we do. And yet we do not. We are disconnecting thousands of people from water services for circumstances beyond their control, contrary to this emergent norm. Whether the United States has a legal obligation or not, it has failed its people in the eyes of the international community. That ought to be a big deal.
Water Affordability – A Nationwide Issue
So far, though, I’ve assumed that people losing access to water in Detroit have no control over their situation. As the Special Rapporteur said, disconnections are contrary to human rights only if the people disconnected “do not have the means to pay their bills.” How do I know that the residents of Detroit—half of whom were subject to disconnection notices this past summer—are actually that insolvent? It may be difficult to accept, but water is increasingly priced beyond the reach of many low-income families.
We’re used to thinking of water as inexpensive because for a long time the way we’ve managed it has prevented us from feeling the true cost of water service. For one thing, we’ve deferred maintenance on our water system for so long that estimates for the cost of renovations run from the hundreds of billions to the low trillions. Moreover, when we do pay up, it’ll be in a financial regime under which rate-payers are covering a much higher proportion of the tab than they used to. In previous phases of infrastructure development, state and federal governments would cover some costs in the form of grants. In the 1980s, we replaced these grants with loans, pushing water systems to charge their customers full-cost or nearly full-cost rates (see page 21). In the last 20 years, regular ratepayers have financed 90% of water and wastewater investments in the United States.
Logically, low-income households are the first to feel the pressure. The US Conference of Mayors and the American Water Works Association consider water to be “unaffordable” for households which must devote more than 2% of their monthly income to water bills. Little data available describes how many people in the United States live under these conditions, but what there is is discouraging. For example, the Pacific Institute recently estimated that over 100,000 households in the Sacramento region pay more than this 2% threshold. (Not people, households.)
As far as I know, most of these Sacramento households are still paying for water. The Pacific Institute’s study merely suggests they’re seriously struggling to afford their bills. Rules for how water utilities may proceed against customers in arrears vary from location to location, but many utilities will disconnect customers who fail to pay them. This measure might make sense in a system where water is cheap enough to be readily affordable for most people. In such a system, being disconnected would be a wakeup call to poorly-organized or dishonest individuals to take out their wallets and pay into the system. Disconnections would be brief, and would prevent anyone from freeloading.
But we don’t live in that system. When people genuinely can’t afford their water bills, they can’t simply pay up. Even if they find the money (and Detroit has had some success with collections through its shutoff campaign), qualitative research in Detroit and Boston suggests that families often turn their water back on by giving up prescription medications, food, or other essential goods also protected by human rights principles. If they can’t find the money, prolonged disconnections create severe consequences for affected families who find themselves unable to bathe at home (making it harder to stay employed), unable to cook or do laundry, forced to send children to live with relatives so child protective services won’t place them in foster care, and at risk of losing their homes entirely.
Struggling households aren’t asking for water to be free. Only for it to be affordable. If it were, some experts think water utilities might actually collect more revenue, not less. When customers genuinely can’t afford their bills, disconnecting them is more likely to result in default. The utility loses one of its customers, and must raise rates on every other customer in order to pay off the fixed cost of its infrastructure. If water utilities were to keep customers paying into the system at whatever rate they could manage (based on ability to pay), they would be able to put more toward these fixed costs than if they leave many former customers disconnected.
Looking Beyond Detroit
So far, much of the coverage of Detroit’s water crisis has assumed that the problem is specific to Detroit. I hope I’ve made the case it isn’t. As a nation, we’ve under-financed our water infrastructure and changed our finance strategies to rely on local ratepayers instead of state or federal tax dollars. As water becomes unaffordable for many Americans (just how many is hard to determine), the collections policies of many of our water utilities continue to assume it’s cheap. Detroit isn’t the only city where water disconnections are causing widespread human suffering: the problem is also significant in more prosperous cities like Boston. We don’t know how many such cities there are, and any city where large numbers of households struggle with their water bills is one economic shock away from the level of injustice and suffering that’s brought the United Nations’ humanitarian experts to Detroit’s doorstep. The citizens of Detroit who have been struggling to call attention to this issue for years are not freeloaders, but whistleblowers, working valiantly to inform the public of a hidden danger to us all.
I think the UN’s independent experts understand this. Speaking yesterday, they directed their recommendations not only to the City of Detroit but to the country generally. With one recommendation in particular, I think they’ve identified the smallest, simplest and easiest first step: They want federal and state agencies to deny funding and permits to water utilities that refuse to report annually on their water shutoff practices. From talking with non-profits focused on this issue, I’ve learned that the reason there’s little information about water affordability is because water utilities have resisted non-profits’ questions about their customer bases and survey methods like those used in Sacramento and Boston are difficult and expensive to implement. Tying utilities’ funding and development permissions to these reporting requirements would require only a small commitment from governments, but would generate the information we all need to truly understand the scale of this problem and –hopefully–will bring us one step closer to forming the political resolve we need to fix it.