The right to water

Access to safe, clean, affordable water is a human right. Water is crucial to healthy ecosystems. It is also critical for building resilience to climate change.

But in the U.S. and around the world, people are denied this most basic of rights. Low-income people, communities of color, and Indigenous people are disproportionately impacted.

Here are some ways that communities are working to reclaim the right to water, with support from AFSC


For years, AFSC's Wabanaki Program has supported community members in their struggle for water rights. Photo: AFSC Wabanaki Program


The people of the Passamaquoddy Tribe in Sipayik, Maine have not had safe drinking water in over 40 years. Community members live with brown liquid coming from their faucets. Some have gotten rashes from bathing and other unexplained health issues.

The tribe’s water comes from Boyden’s Lake. Because of sedimentation and fecal matter from birds, the local municipality treats the lake water with chlorine. But the process has resulted in dangerously high levels of trihalomethanes in the water. This potential carcinogen can cause problems with the liver, kidney, and central nervous system.

AFSC has a long history of accompanying the Wabanaki communities of Maine in their struggles for justice, including the Passamaquoddy people in Sipayik. Over the past two years, we have supported the tribal government’s call for more authority over its own drinking water. In that time we also delivered thousands of bottles of water to a local food pantry and Boys & Girls Club. This has helped to relieve the financial burden for community members.


Foluke Nunn, Atlanta Community Organizer


Since 2014, residents in DeKalb County, Georgia have received outrageously high water bills—sometimes amounting to thousands of dollars. The county blamed faulty water meters. A moratorium was placed on water shutoffs while the county worked to address the issue.

Last year, the county lifted that moratorium, stating the problem had been resolved. But residents continued to get wildly inaccurate water bills. Since then, nearly 2,000 households have had their water shut off. What’s more, some residents—tired of contesting these bills—said they were coerced into payment plans to repay debts they didn’t incur. Now some are unable to make those payments and risk losing their homes.

With support from AFSC, community members organized DeKalb Water Watch to stop this injustice. Our coalition is demanding the county reinstate the moratorium on shutoffs. We also want them to establish a clear process for people to dispute their bills and to cancel the debt of people forced into payment plans. Over the past year, we have started an online petition, held protests, and advocated with county commissioners.

“So many people in the county are dealing with this issue,” says Foluke Nunn, community organizer with AFSC’s Atlanta Economic Justice Program. “Our coalition is working hard to bring public awareness and bring more people into our campaign, so we have power in numbers to win.”


Acequias are communal irrigation canals that bring water from rivers to homes and farms. In New Mexico, acequias have long served as a lifeline in the desert climate. They nourish gardens, crops, and wildlife. They also support traditional, sustainable growing practices. The system is democratically controlled by community-elected commissions made up of irrigators. These are residents who own land along the acequias and thus have the right to use them.

But this water democracy faces big challenges. Developers put pressure on available water supplies by building golf courses and suburban sprawl. Climate change driven drought has made the water supply less reliable in some years. And underfunding from the state has made it difficult for communities to maintain these vital canals.

Since the 1970s, AFSC’s New Mexico Program has supported communities in defending their right to water—and has coordinated events to celebrate the cultural and spiritual traditions honoring this vital resource. Recently, we assisted a group of irrigators pursuing a court case seeking accountability for damage to an acequia. In New Mexico’s South Valley, many people have been irrigating their properties for generations. Yet they may not have official papers documenting their right to use water from the acequia. AFSC is helping them navigate the complicated process of filing their declarations with the state. This gives them legal standing should a developer or others try to usurp those rights.


Ixil Mayan youth take part in trainings where they explore systems of oppression and how they can work to transform them. Photo: Luis Ochoa


For generations, the Putul River was a source of life for the Ixil Mayan people in the highlands of Guatemala. It gave them much of what they needed—a thriving eco-system, fish to eat, and sand and gravel to build houses.

That all changed in 2009 when a foreign corporation, ENEL, diverted the river to build a hydraulic dam. Today, the community no longer has fish to eat. Their wells, once filled with drinking water, now hold sand from construction. And hillsides have been flooded, drowning maize, coffee, and other crops.

Over the years, the Ixil Mayan people have sought accountability and compensation from ENEL for the harm done. They have demanded meetings and organized protests. But the corporation has only met sporadically with community members. It has broken its promises to provide financial compensation, hydroelectric power from the dam, and materials to repair homes. And the government has sided with the corporation, even sending the military to quash community resistance.

Today, AFSC is helping community members strengthen their skills to advocate for their rights and freedoms. We are providing training on community organizing and advocacy to the Ixil people—and other Indigenous communities—in their efforts to stop the dispossession of their lands.

Because AFSC works internationally, we have also connected community leaders with others facing similar challenges to exchange knowledge and strengthen their strategies. Together, we will keep amplifying the story of the Ixil people until their rights are respected.