Human Rights and Water Inequality in the United States: A Political Ecological Analysis

Authors: Stephen Gasteyer*, Michigan State University, Wenhua Lai, Michigan State University
Topics: Water Resources and Hydrology, Cultural and Political Ecology, Human Rights
Keywords: Human Right to Water and Sanitation, United States, Political Ecology, Spatial inequality
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/7/2019
Start / End Time: 3:55 PM / 5:35 PM
Room: Empire Room, Omni, West
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Recognition of the human right to water and sanitation by the United Nations in 2010 has illuminated the ongoing struggle for access. It is well known that there are still hundreds of millions globally who lack clean water, and that more than 2 billion global citizens who lack access to adequate sanitation. Conventionally, the US is considered exempt from this problem. There is growing recognition, however, that, while statistically, the vast majority of US residents have consistent, reliable, and affordable access to potable water and sanitation, an underclass exists for whom these taken for granted services cannot be presumed. While statistically small, the estimated population of those suffering from at least inconsistent access to these basic services is striking: 1.6 million lack complete plumbing; 15 million had their water shut off for some time in 2016; and 1 million Californians alone lack access to clean water. Using the theoretical lens of political ecology, this paper will present multimethod research that documents the spatial, demographic and social-nature dynamics of this issue, using community case analysis to depict the institutional and power dynamics that dispossesses particular populations. The paper also touches on the efforts by activists allied with and those living in marginalized communities improve services and access. Among the key findings is the recognition that water access in the US cannot be approach as an individual household problem, but rather as the result of deeply embedded political systems of inequality.

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