Are Detroit's water shutoffs a violation of international law?

Is the city of Detroit violating international human rights law?

That's what some U.N. experts are asking after the city disconnected water service at thousands of homes where residents haven't paid their bills. The shutoffs have sparked outrage among some residents and is one of the most contentious issues facing the city since it filed for bankruptcy last year.

Two U.N. human rights experts are planning to visit Detroit this weekend to investigate the problem. The disconnections in Detroit appear to conflict with a U.N. resolution that declares clean drinking water and sanitation as "essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights."

Businesses and residents are trying to adapt to the city's crumbling water system. The water department is even improvising, and earlier this year jerry-rigged a system of plastic pipe, garden hoses, duct tape and towels to bring water from a downtown fire hydrant to two nearby businesses. The makeshift system provided water for a coffee shop and jewelry store.

The temporary fix, which has ended up lasting for months, was devised because city crews can't fix a leak in a water main. Two nearby buildings, falling apart from decades of neglect, threaten to injure workers with falling debris if they try excavating to fix the main.

In an effort to shore up revenue, the city this spring began cutting off water for thousands of customers who weren't paying their bills. The decision led to numerous protests, with people complaining that children and seniors were unnecessarily suffering.

Advocates appealed to Detroit's bankruptcy judge for help, but he said last month he didn't have the authority to stop the city with a temporary restraining order. People do not have a constitutional right to water, he added.

The city, which continues to close as many as 400 accounts a day, has been widely criticized for its actions. "Bankruptcy means you can't pay your debts," wrote Rob Burgess, an editor at The Kokomo Tribune. "Detroit declared as much -- the largest such civic action in the country's history, in fact. How does it expect its own citizens to pay their bills if they can't even make good on their own?"

City officials counter that they've developed a plan to assist low-income residents with paying their bills. They also have established a new fund to help customers who can't pay.

Activists have turned to the U.N. for help, submitting a report to the group's Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation. That led three U.N. experts to issue a press release condemning the city.

"When there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections," said Catarina de Albuquerque, one of the experts. She is one of the two experts planning to visit Detroit Saturday. They're expected to hold a press conference Monday to announce their findings.

  • Kim Peterson

    Kim Peterson is a financial journalist covering business and the economy. She has written for several online and print publications, including MSN Money and The Seattle Times.