Mobilizing Health Metrics for the Human Right to Water in Flint and Detroit, Michigan

The ongoing water crises in Detroit and Flint, Michigan, offer dramatic cases of retrogression in realizing the human right to water—particularly striking in a region that enjoys access to one-fifth of the world’s freshwater and a country that has historically enjoyed near-universal access to water and sanitation. Efforts to secure safe, sufficient, affordable, acceptable, and accessible water in these cities reveal a troubling inability to protect the human right to water through legal measures. Compounding the challenge is the lack of reliable government data on the scope and impacts of the water crises—a void that residents have organized to fill. Activists have engaged a number of citizen-led research projects to demonstrate the health impacts of unsafe and unaffordable water. This paper discusses the process and potential of such projects to advance the substance of the human right to water in the United States, considering their effects within and outside the law. These research efforts have significant methodological and legal constraints with respect to widespread water insecurity, exposing a serious vulnerability in communities’ ability to protect drinking water and public health in the United States through legal means. However, drawing on Amartya Sen’s theory of human rights, I elaborate the extra-juridical powers of human rights, emphasizing their power to galvanize action and articulate ethical demands. Citizen science is a powerful mode of engaging residents in the articulation—and quantification—of those human rights demands, as I demonstrate with local cases.

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