Representatives from the United Nations spent a few days in Detroit earlier this week looking into the spate of utility shutoffs that left thousands of poor households in the city this year without water to bathe and cook by.

The two special rapporteurs — one on "the human right to water and sanitation," the other on "adequate housing" — were invited to town not by the city, but by community groups that have been advocating for the poor. And their conclusion reinforces what concerned on-lookers have been saying since this summer: "When people are genuinely unable to pay the bill," the U.N. says, the state is obligated to step up with financial assistance and subsidies. "Not doing so amounts to a human rights violation."

The ensuing narrative is provocative, representing a kind of rock bottom for the Motor City (and the U.S. by implication): The U.N. just condemned an American city for violating the fundamental rights of its own residents — rights that families in much more impoverished countries should be able to expect, too. As a reminder, the rapporteurs add in their statement, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights "is fully applicable to the United States," too.

"We were deeply disturbed," their statement says, "to observe the indignity people have faced and continue to live with in one of the wealthiest countries in the world and in a city that was a symbol of America’s prosperity."

This is an important conversation for American cities to have, even outside Detroit: whether water should be a right, and if so, how we plan to ensure that. But the problem in Detroit is also much more complicated than the U.N.'s scolding relays.

What makes the situation there so terrible is not that city officials have decided some people don't deserve water, or that they have blithely disregarded anyone's rights; it's that the city has many problems, this one included, and each one complicates the task of resolving all the others.

The city must figure out how to restore water to people who can't pay, while distinguishing them from people who simply won't pay (because that's a problem the city has, too). It has to figure out how to cover the costs of subsidizing water for the poor without further raising rates for households of more modest incomes (because water bills in Detroit are already well above the national average). Detroit has to find the resources to serve one of the most impoverished populations in the country — all while that very poverty has helped sap the resources the city once had.

Perhaps it's the UN's job to preach that water is a human right. But the logistics of making that a reality are much, much more complicated than saying it should be so.