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On Monday, a US bankruptcy judge delivered the latest blow to poor residents in the US city of Detroit who are struggling to pay for their water. Judge Steven Rhodes, ruling from the bench, declined to stop the city from shutting off water to people who can’t pay their bills – in practice up to 400 households a day – and reportedly stated that there exists no enforceable right to free or affordable water.

The ruling follows months of water shut-offs to thousands of residents and a city council vote in June approving an 8.7 percent increase in water rates – to a level almost double the US average – at a time when 80,000 residential customers were more than $535 past due on their bills on average, and almost 40 percent of the city’s residents live below the federal poverty line.

The court ruling is out of step with the emerging international consensus on the human right to water. While the US has not ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – the core human rights treaty that covers the right – most other countries have. And, while international law does not require that governments provide water for “free” – utility services must of course be able to cover costs – United Nations expert bodies have established that water should be affordable; precisely what the Detroit residents sought in asking the court to intervene.

The situation in Detroit may be a disturbing sign of things to come in the United States. In 2013, the US Conference of Mayors raised the alarm that the high cost of necessary local government investment in aging water infrastructure and services in many cities disproportionately affects elderly, poor, and middle class households. According to its research, public water spending between 2001 and 2010 topped $850 billion, largely financed through water rate hikes and increased long-term borrowing. The conference of mayors lamented that the burden of higher charges “are borne disproportionately by households with low, moderate or fixed incomes” because a greater share of their income is spent on necessities like water. They called for “a fresh look at local affordability and national water policy.”

It’s long past time for the United States to recognize the human right to water domestically and devise national, state, and local policy solutions that both guarantee sufficient financing for affordable public water infrastructure and service. Failure to do so will likely put at risk the health, prosperity, and wellbeing of many Americans throughout the US, not just in Detroit.

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