The Human Right to Water in the United States:
While the United States possesses an abundance of fresh water resources and a significant
percentage of the population takes for granted access to water of reasonable quality at an
affordable price, water-related problems affect increasing numbers of people in the U.S.
each year. The long-term drought in California, mass water shutoffs in Detroit, Michigan,
the highly-publicized contamination of the public water supply in Flint, Michigan and the
standoff over the Dakota Access Pipeline have brought increased public attention to these
issues. To date, this attention has not necessarily translated into more effective responses
by public officials.
Over the past decade, the international community has affirmed the existence of the
human right to clean, affordable water as a fundamental right to a basic necessity of life.
Building on this work, we believe that promotion of the human right to water can contribute
to addressing the worsening water problems in the U.S. This primer suggests some
of the forms such promotion might take, even in the context of the U.S. government’s
refusal to recognize this right.
We begin by clarifying the sources of the human right to water and touching on some of
the obstacles to realizing the right in the U.S. The primer then examines several high-profile
water disputes, some of which have involved the use of the human rights framework
as part of an overall strategy to resolve the issue. We conclude with a reflection on possible
future uses of the human right to water in legal and policy advocacy within the U.S.
The Human Right to Water in the United States: A Primer for Lawyers and Community Leaders
is a project of the Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy, a human rights
center located at Northeastern University School of Law. Support from the Unitarian
Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) made this work possible.