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Water justice and the struggles of minorities and indigenous peoples for water rights: a planetary perspective

20 June 2023

Water is a living cycle that connects biosphere and atmosphere. Forests, rivers and oceans are interwoven by the water cycle, keeping life on this planet in a state of constant regeneration, renewal and recycling. Water is also the flow connecting life and people. Simply put, water is the basis of life-affirming cultures. In Urdu and Hindi, water is known as ab. The word abadi, derived from ab, is also the word for community. This is because people settle and come together to form communities wherever there is water. Abad raho is used as a greeting to encourage prosperity and abundance. 

Whether a community faces scarcity or abundance depends on how we relate to water and how water is distributed. Economies and cultures that disregard the water cycle and which waste, pollute or destroy water, are generating scarcity and injustice even in places where there is abundant ground and surface water. Those that save every drop, like the indigenous cultures and communities in the desert of Rajasthan, led by community organizations like Tarun Bharat Sangha and the Rejuvenate Rivers movement, can create abundance out of scarcity. 

Sustainability and justice are part of the same ecological process. We are all earth citizens. We all participate in the water cycle. Our bodies carry water, and make us all participants in the endless movement, flow and distribution of life across the planet.  

When the rich, powerful and dominant economic forces of society take more than their earth share, ecosystems, plants, animals, women, indigenous communities and minority groups are deprived of their share of water for life and livelihoods, leaving entire communities to carry the heavy burden of water poverty. Women in communities all around the planet fetch and carry water on a daily basis. Extraction and pollution of local water systems increase their burden. 

In 2005, India’s National Commission of Women asked the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology to conduct a report on women and water. Our participatory research, conducted with rural women across India, showed that if opportunity costs were considered, the cost of fetching water is almost equivalent to 160 million working days each year, which translates into 10 billion rupees. 

Women are therefore the first to know when water systems are being destroyed by greed. 

In the 1970s, women of the mountain regions of the Himalaya rose to form the Chipko movement. Wide-scale deforestation had led to the destruction and disappearance of water springs, destabilization of the mountain slopes and major landslides. Chipko means to hug. Women decided they would hug the trees to stop destruction. Chipko women reminded the world that forests are not timber mines for the extraction of profits. Forests are the sources of water, soil and oxygen. 

In 2002, women from a small village in Plachimada started a satyagraha – an act of non-violent civil disobedience aimed at shutting down a Coca-Cola plant that was extracting 1.5 million litres of groundwater per day, causing water famine in a water-rich region. By 2004, the women had shut down the Coca-Cola plant. As a result of their efforts, groundwater was recognized as a commons for the local community to enjoy.  

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, a group known as the Brave Women of Kruščica led a 503-day blockade of heavy equipment that resulted in the cancellation of permits for two proposed dams on the Kruščica River in December 2018. The Balkans are home to the last free-flowing rivers in Europe.  

These and many other examples around the planet show that women not only carry water to supply households, women also tend to lead the struggle to defend, protect and fight for the life of waters in the face of rampant private ownership and extraction. Or, as Justice Balakrishna Nair pronounced in his ruling of 16 December 2003, as part of the Plachimada village case:  

The public trust doctrine primarily rests on the principle that certain resources like air, seawater and the forests have such great importance to the people as a whole that it would be wholly unjustified to make them the subject of private ownership. The said resources being gifts of nature, they should be made freely available to everyone irrespective of their status in life. The doctrine enjoins upon the government to protect the resources for the enjoyment of the public rather than permit their use for private ownership or commercial purpose…

The World Bank has sought to impose privatization of water on the global South as part of their structural adjustment programmes since the 1990s. One of the most infamous tales of corporate greed concerning water occurred in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in what are now known as the Cochabamba Water Wars. In this semi-desert region of the high Andes, water sources are vulnerable and precious. In 1999 the World Bank recommended privatization and a monopoly over Cochabamba’s municipal supply through a concession to International Water, a subsidiary of the US-owned Bechtel Corporation. In October 1999, the first water bill was passed granting the privatization of Cochabamba’s water. 

Privatization led to such high prices that people in this deprived region of Bolivia found themselves spending up to 20 per cent of their monthly wages on water bills. In January 2000, a citizens’ alliance called Coodinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la Vida (Coalition in Defence of Water and Life) was formed. The alliance shut down the city for four days through mass mobilization. A Cochabamba Declaration was subsequently issued. Protests continued until the privatization law was annulled in April 2000. Contracts were terminated, and new water resource laws were drafted following citizens’ participation.  

Back in India, the World Bank imposed a water privatization project in the city of Delhi in 2001, only months after the Cochabamba Declaration. The consultants appointed for this project were PwC (Price Waterhouse Coopers). Waters from the sacred River Ganga were to be privatized and sent to the Suez-Degrémont water plant at Sonia Vihar. A water democracy movement soon came together to connect the people displaced by the Tehri Dam and farmers whose fields are irrigated by the Ganga canal in the slums of Delhi. 

On 8 August 2004, on the eve of Quit India Day, which marks when British colonizers were told to leave India, we gathered on the banks of the Ganga at Haridwar. We were joined by Sunderlal Bahuguna, the leader of the Chipko movement, Rajendra Singh from Rajasthan and Oscar Olivera from Bolivia, one of the leaders of the Cochabamba movement during the Cochabamba Water Wars. 

We took a pledge that we will never let the River Ganga be sold to any multinational company – we will never allow our mother or her water to be sold to Suez-Degrémont or any other corporation. Ganga is revered as a mother – Ganga Maa. We carried out water pilgrimages, staged water protests and held public hearings. On 9 August 2002, 5,000 farmers gathered in a rally. In 2004, 150,000 people joined a march in the heart of Delhi, signalling a commitment to keep waters public. The movement forced the cancellation of the World Bank project. 

It is encouraging to hear that Rajendra Singh has worked in collaboration with Minority Rights Group (MRG) editor Nicolas Salazar Sutil to renew our pledge for planetary water justice, which is included in the Afterword to this report, and which has been submitted, along with my own insights, to the United Nations (UN) on the occasion of the UN Water Conference 2023, held in New York.  

Like the citizens of Cochabamba, we declare that Water is Life, not merchandise. By reclaiming water from corporations and the market, the citizens of Bolivia, India and other countries have illustrated that privatization is not inevitable, and that corporate takeover of vital resources can be prevented by people’s movements for water democracy and water justice at a planetary scale. The role of minorities and indigenous peoples in this fight for water justice cannot be praised highly enough. 

This report shows that the examples from Bolivia and India are not isolated ones, and that the unjust privatization of water in water-stressed countries is a global pattern of grotesque proportions, as the case studies of Chile, Georgia, Iran and Libya in this report clearly illustrate. The Cochabamba Water Wars of 2000, and the Delhi Water Rallies of 2001, are far from over. In fact, the struggle to secure water justice for communities, especially those belonging to minorities and indigenous peoples, has intensified all around the world. 

Thus, according to a recent UN report on the state of the world’s water, ‘over the last few decades, the water crisis has deepened on a planetary scale. 75 per cent of available freshwater is now used for chemical- and water-intensive agriculture, which also leaves rivers and lakes polluted with nitrates and pesticides.’ Phosphorus pollution generated by intensive agriculture and run-off has led to major environmental crises in water systems across the world – Lake Erie in the United States and the River Wye in the United Kingdom being two iconic examples of destruction due to industrial agriculture.  

According to the same UN report, more than 5 billion people could suffer water shortages by 2050 due to climate change, increased demands and polluted supplies. In the name of the Green Revolution or mass production of foods to satisfy global markets and consumption, lands once known to be abundant in water are being transformed into areas of critical water stress. Punjab, the land of five rivers, is one of many examples of this. 

Globalization has led to the export of water from the global South, further intensifying the water crisis worldwide. A tragic example of this is Lake Chad in Central Africa. The 20,000 square kilometre lake has shrunk dramatically, as 80 per cent of the water that recharges the lake is being diverted to irrigate commercial crops. The consequence is growing water conflicts, as the Niger case study in this report vividly shows. Operating across the four countries that share the lake, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria, Boko Haram is an example of how the destruction of water sources can directly or indirectly cause the breakdown of civil society and the rise of violent extremism

As Luc Gnacadja, former Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), has stated:  

[T]he depletion of Lake Chad has helped create the conditions for conflict. In much of northern Nigeria, Muslim herders are in competition with Christian farmers for dwindling water supplies. The so-called religious fight is about access to vital resources. It is not just about Boko Haram. In the Sahel belt, you will see almost the same challenge in Mali and in Sudan. Furthermore, men who were or would have been gainfully employed as farmers, fishermen, fish sellers and pastoralists have now been conscripted into Boko Haram, with many of them participating in the deadly night raids of the terrorist groups.

As the third chapter in this report reveals, the case of landlocked regions across the Sahel is not dissimilar to that of Central Asian countries, where the desiccation of major lakes and seas – for instance the Aral Sea – has also led to the breakdown of social cohesion and large-scale conflict across and among former Soviet republics, affecting many minority and indigenous communities (see for example the Kyrgyzstan case study in this report). 

The latest threat to planetary water justice and water rights is the financialization of water. As Maude Barlow and I wrote: ‘We are horrified that on December 7, 2020, CME Group – the world’s largest financial derivatives exchange company – launched the world’s first futures market in water, opening up speculation from financiers and investors seeking to profit from the planet’s water crisis.’ 

If water is put on the open market like oil and gas, it will inevitably lead to rising water prices in a world desperately in need of water for life. Nearly two million children die every year due to dirty water – a situation made more critical in a time of Covid, when half the world’s population lacks access to a place to wash their hands with soap and warm water. This, in itself, is a travesty. To imagine that wealthy hedge fund speculators and faceless derivatives gamblers will have the right to drive up the price of water for their own profit is totally unacceptable and must be stopped. 

Ten years ago, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution recognizing that clean water and sanitation are basic human rights. The move to commodify water on Wall Street directly threatens these human rights and puts billions of people in jeopardy. 

We demand that people everywhere – and all governments – reject the commodification and financialization of water, and that water is finally recognized as a public trust as well as a human right in law and practice for all time.

We are grateful to members of Navdanya for their collaboration in the production of this chapter.

This chapter is part of our ‘Minority and Indigenous Trends 2023: Focus on Water’ flagship report. Discover all chapters >


Vandana Shiva