A woman whose water was shut off though she paid her bill in full.

A woman caring for her ailing father.

A teenager whose family had to purchase bottled water to cook.

These are among those mentioned in four activist organizations’ appeal to the United Nations for help in a struggling city’s water crisis.

That city is Detroit.

Graffiti covers an abandoned building in Detroit in 2013. (J.D. Pooley/Getty Images)

Though the birthplace of Motown and home of Ford Motors went bankrupt last year, few thought it a candidate for international aid.

However, the Blue Planet Project, Food & Water Watch, the Detroit People’s Water Board and the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization make that case.

Though Detroit has battled crumbling infrastructure for decades, the recent water crisis was initiated by the city water department’s service cutoff policy.

From the appeal:

In March 2014, the water and sewer department announced it would begin shutting off water service for 1,500 to 3,000 customers per week. …

There are more than 179,000 residential water accounts in Detroit. By April 30, 2014, more than 83,000 of them were past due. The average amount owed per household was just over $540.

In a report by the [Detroit Water and Sewer Department’s] Director, dated May 28, 2014, it is noted there were ‘44,273 notices sent to customers in April 2014, resulting in 3,025 shut-offs for non-payment.’ The water department has said it will turn the water off to all residences that owe money by the end of the summer.

“What we see is a violation of the human right to water,” Meera Karunananthan, an international campaigner with the Blue Planet Project, told Al Jazeera. “The U.S. has international obligations in terms of people’s right to water, and this is a blatant violation of that right. We’re hoping the U.N. will put pressure on the federal government and the state of Michigan to do something about it.”

But what chance is there that the United Nations will meaningfully respond to the plea from the Motor City?


Though the United Nations has boots on the ground in Haiti, the Central African Republic and Afghanistan, among other places, it will not rush to Detroit to open the taps.

Activists’ appeal was directed to the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation — that is, Catarina de Albuquerque, a law professor in Lisbon.

De Albuquerque and her office observe and report. This year, the special rapporteur weighed in on water problems in Jordan, Syria and Brazil.

The office does not rush to the aid of cities with sanitation departments carrying $5 billion debts.

De Albuquerque was unavailable for comment early Tuesday.