Communities across the United States face a widespread water crisis including risks of contamination, rate increases, shut-offs for non-payment, and dilapidating infrastructure. Against this background, a right to water movement has emerged which has found its strength in coalition-building and collectivity. Activists demand change using the framing of “water is a human right”, socially constructing the right to water from below. Based on more than 25 semi-structured interviews with water advocates and activists, our article explores how movement participants used the human rights framework to advocate for clean and affordable water for all. We used political opportunity theory and conceptions of government “openness” and “closedness” to examine when and how advocates decided to use confrontational and cooperative approaches. We identified a push and pull of different strategies in three key spaces: in the courts, on the streets, and at the Capitols. Advocates used adversarial approaches including protests and civil disobedience, reliance on human rights mechanisms, and to a more limited extent litigation simultaneously with cooperative approaches such as engaging with legislators and the development of concrete proposals and plans for ensuring water affordability. This adaptiveness, persistence, and ability to identify opportunities likely explains the movement’s initial successes in addressing the water crisis.
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