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By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times

DETROIT — It has been six weeks since the city turned off Nicole Hill’s water.

Dirty dishes are piled in the sink of her crowded kitchen, where the yellow-and-green linoleum floor is soiled and sticky. A small garbage can is filled with water from a neighbor, while a bigger one sits outside in the yard, where she hopes it will collect some rain. She’s developed an intricate recycling system of washing the dishes, cleaning the floor and flushing the toilet with the same water.

“It’s frightening, because you think this is something that only happens somewhere like Africa,” said Hill, a single mother who is studying homeland security at a local college. “But now I know what they’re going through– when I get somewhere there’s a water faucet, I drink until my stomach hurts.”

Hill is one of thousands of residents in Detroit who have had their water and sewer services turned off as part of a crackdown on customers who are behind on their bills. In April, the city set a target of cutting service to 3,000 customers a week who were more than $150 behind on their bills. In May, the water department sent out 46,000 warnings and cut off service to 4,531. The city says that cutting off water is the only way to get people to pay their bills as Detroit tries to emerge from bankruptcy — the utility is currently owed $90 million from customers, and nearly half the city’s 300,000 or so accounts are past due.

But cutting off water to people already living in poverty came under criticism last week from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, whose experts said that Detroit is violating international standards by cutting off access to water. “When there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections,” Catarina de Albuquerque, the office’s expert on the human right to water and sanitation, said in the communique.

“Are we the kind of people that resort to shutting water off when there are disabled people and seniors?” said Maureen Taylor, chair of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization. “We live near the Great Lakes, we have the greatest source of fresh water on Earth, and we still can’t get water here.”

The issue of utility affordability is acute in Detroit, with its high proportion of low-income residents and an infrastructure whose costs were once borne by a much larger population. But municipal analysts say the problem is becoming more prevalent everywhere as extreme weather and its unusual range of high and low temperatures force utility bills ever upward.

In Iowa, for instance, there were nearly 10,000 electricity and gas disconnections in April, a state record, as the weather warmed and utilities could shut off power without breaking the law. (Many states have laws prohibiting the disconnection of gas or electricity during the cold winter or hot summer months.)

But the price of water and sewer services has far outpaced other utilities and the rate of inflation, according to Jan Beecher with the Institute of Public Utilities at Michigan State University. The reason is that much of the nation is in a construction and renovation cycle, with cities now spending billions on renovations after long neglecting them.

Whereas federal programs have been developed to help people pay for the rising cost of fuel and electricity, no such program exists for water, Beecher said.

“We’ve never really developed a clear public policy toward universal service and water,” Beecher said. “International organizations are concerned with a basic level of service, but with water, the tricky thing is that drinking water would fall into that, but watering the lawn would not be considered a basic human right.”

“The real issue is the obligation of the utility to bill affordably so that people will be able to avoid disconnections of service,” said Roger Colton, a consultant with Fisher Sheehan and Colton who specializes in the economics of utilities. “That’s the issue that is quickly coming to the forefront.”

The last time Detroit began shutting off water for unpaid bills a decade ago, Colton worked with the Michigan Poverty Law Program to develop a program that would help the water department collect money while still keeping water affordable. He found that whereas the federal Environmental Protection Agency recommends that families spend no more than 2.5 percent of their pretax income on water and sewer service, some Detroit residents were paying more than 20 percent.

Colton argues that cities won’t get the money they want by simply shutting off services. Instead, he says, utilities should require residents to pay a percentage of their income to the water department for service.

“If you give someone a more affordable bill, you end up collecting more of the bills,” he said.

Taking Colton’s advice into account, Detroit’s water department implemented a program that allowed residents to start making payments on their bills even if they were thousands of dollars behind. But that program was cut during the city’s bankruptcy, said Lorray Brown, with the Michigan Poverty Law Program. The city, still in bankruptcy, is probably not in a position to pay for a similar program now, she said.

AFP Photo / Bill Pugliano

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