DETROIT -

United Nations experts say water shutoffs at Detroit homes due to overdue bills violate international human rights.

Right to water and sanitation expert Catarina de Albuquerque says Wednesday that disconnections due to non-payment are "only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying."

The statement follows a letter sent this week to the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights by welfare rights groups who complain that mass shutoffs by Detroit's water department are leaving poor people at risk.

Detroit water department: bills paid after shut offs

Water department spokeswoman Curtrise Garner says service to 4,531 customers was cut last month, but more than half then paid up. Garner says about $90 million is owed by 90,000 active customers who are behind at least two months.

Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) Director Sue McCormick said they are trying to avoid shut offs.

"Our goal is to have as few shut offs as possible," said McCormick.

She wants to make it clear that while there is a large number of delinquent water accounts in Detroit, those Detroit delinquencies do not affect suburban water bills.

"Unpaid Detroit water bills affect only Detroit customers,” McCormick said. "No suburban customers pay any extra on their bills to make up for unpaid bills on Detroit addresses."

DWSD: 60% paid within 24 hours after shut off

According to the department, it sent out 46,000 shut off notices in May. Of those, only 4,531 customers -- less than 10 percent of the total -- had their water service shut off for any period of time.

Within 24 hours, 60 percent of the affected customers paid their accounts in full and had their service immediately restored, according to DWSD. About 40 percent of the remaining customers had their service restored within 48 hours, according to the department.

"Many of the properties that we shut off are actually vacant structures, not occupied homes,” McCormick said.

Statement from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department:

"The DWSD is working closely with its customers in Detroit who are delinquent in their payments to prevent avoidable water shut offs. The department currently has more than 17,000 Detroit customers enrolled into a successful payment plan program that is designed to fit each customer’s financial situation and ability to pay. Next month, the DWSD also plans to launch a new financial assistance program for the city’s indigent population."