Many communities across the US struggle to access clean and affordable water. We examine civil society responses relying on “water as a human right” through case studies in California, Michigan, and the Appalachian Mountains. This trend presents a paradox, given that socio-economic rights are not perceived as relevant for domestic policy and are even met with hostility in the US. We analyze this tension through the lens of different conceptions of power: power withinpower with, and power to that help us explain why advocates turn to this framing. We find that many activists perceive the human rights framework as an alternative to the government, which they distrust. Engaging with human rights conveys a sense of universality, connectedness, and validation. Building on this validated sense of self-worth and their collective strength, using the human rights framework can provide communities with the power to act and hold governments accountable.

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