The United States Constitution does not explicitly recognize the human right to water, but residents and social movements still turned to rights-based claims in court, in the legislature and on the streets when the City of Detroit began cutting off the water supply of thousands of households in early 2014 as part of wider austerity measures being imposed in response to its ongoing financial troubles. Earlier austerity measures had included increasing tariffs with the result that water bills had increased by 119 percent over a decade and many households could no longer afford to pay.

Austerity logic also resulted in the Flint water system being switched from the Detroit to the Flint River in April 2014. Authorities were well aware that the Flint River water was unsafe, and residents noticed problems immediately, but it took longer to have their plight recognised as a human rights issue. Three years later the water is still not safe. In both Detroit and Flint, the imposition of austerity through the anti-democratic means of Emergency Management has been influenced by systematic and structural racism, and the effects on residential water services have also reflected this democratic deficit and racialized political landscape.

This presentation will analyse the water crises in both cities and the social movements that grew up in response, with a view to understanding how the articulation of the human right to water has developed in the US.


Dr Cristy Clark is a lecturer and researcher at the Southern Cross University School of Law and Justice. She completed her PhD at UNSW on comparative water governance, community participation and the human right to water. Her research continues to focus on the intersection of water governance, community participation, human rights, and the environment.

Thursday 5 July at 12 noon in The Hon John Dowd Boardroom (LIS-L2.30) with a Zoom link to GCB-C6.03, or remotely via Zoom.