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Minority and Indigenous Trends 2023: Focus on water

The world is experiencing an unprecedented water crisis. From drought to floods and food insecurity to conflict, our report investigates the intersecting water crises faced by minorities and indigenous peoples worldwide.


Access to water is one of the underlying themes of this report, and one we come back to throughout.

The question of access underscores many issues that could be said to be key to this report, such as accessibility and disability, infrastructure, water quality in rivers and aquifers, gender issues, to mention but a few. Access is a vital aspect of the right to safe drinking water and sanitation, which directly impacts hygiene, health, livelihoods, recreation and many other dimensions of what is sometimes referred to as hydro-citizenship, that is, the complex array of water-human relationships that make up a sense of belonging. As this vital relationship is broken, minorities and indigenous peoples throughout the world are experiencing a lack of access to water. The problem is compounded by numerous environmental, political and social factors, at the heart of which are deep-seated forms discrimination and injustice.


Where access to water is restricted, sanitary conditions are soon affected.

Across the globe, sanitation is a major concern for minority and indigenous communities impacted by water shortages or pollution. The World Health Organization’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) framework reminds us that sanitation is not only a prerequisite to health, but also that it contributes to livelihoods and dignity, as it helps create resilient communities living in healthy environments. Many of the problems faced by minorities and indigenous peoples that do not currently enjoy safe and sufficient sanitation ultimately have to do with exclusion from the sites where decisions are taken with regard to infrastructure maintenance and development. Contributing factors include pollution, whether natural or anthropogenic in origin.


According to recent estimates by the UN Environment Programme, 80 per cent of global wastewater goes untreated, containing everything from human waste to highly toxic industrial discharges.

Globally, 1,000 rivers emit nearly 80 per cent of oceanic plastic pollution, that is one per cent of the world’s rivers mostly located in highly industrialized countries or countries experiencing rapid industrialization such as India, China and Indonesia. During 2022, industrialized countries like the United States and the United Kingdom experienced major pollution crises due to sewage, agricultural run-off and industrial pollution, which in turn led to many lakes and rivers being declared ‘biologically dead’. That is the case, among others, of Lake Erie, and the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in the United States. The Severn, Calder, Usk and Wye rivers in the United Kingdom have also suffered a similar fate. Biological death has also been the fate of major rivers in the global South including the Ganges, Yamuna, Citarum and Yellow Rivers. Underlying the water pollution crisis worldwide are a series of intersecting problems, including industrial agriculture and extractive industries (e.g. mining and the petro-chemicals industry), as well as other related issues such as road run-off, sewage, unregulated plastic production and even unregulated pollution from religious practices (e.g. river cremation).


The past year has seen some of the deadliest floods and flash floods ever recorded in Pakistan, eastern Australia and across large parts of Africa.

In total, 3,861 people are thought to have died in these three flood events, leaving over 2.1 million people homeless in Pakistan alone. This section highlights the ways in which minorities and indigenous peoples are particularly vulnerable to the deadly impact of floods. The intensification of extreme weather events related to climate change is having numerous consequences on the ground in terms of reinforcing the exclusion and discrimination faced by minority and indigenous communities worldwide.


The planet is experiencing some of the worst droughts ever recorded, further evidence of the destabilization of the planet’s water cycle and climate.

Desertification and drought are affecting swathes of North, Central and South America, especially in areas like Brazil, Chile and the western United States, as well as large sections of East and southern Africa, such as in Angola, Botswana, Kenya, Madagascar, Namibia and Somalia.


While it is tempting to think that water crisis is caused by intensified changes in the climate, the disasters discussed in previous sections go hand in hand with the impact that major infrastructure projects have had on the environment and society at large.

This section focuses on the consequences that major water infrastructure projects such as hydropower, canalization and tunnelling for large-scale irrigation are having on local ecosystems on the one hand, and on marginalized communities on the other.

Injustices arising from inadequate, unplanned or environmentally destructive dams and irrigation systems, often constructed under the banner of national development, all conspire towards violations of the rights of minorities and indigenous peoples worldwide, for instance through the imposition of unsustainable modern engineering techniques on ancestral cultural practices for water conservancy and management. The overall pattern we find in these case studies is a direct correlation between non-consensual water infrastructure, and a rise in human rights violations and land disputes across many parts of the globe.


Closely related to the issues of inequitable development and controversial hydroelectric projects is the problem of conflict.

As we have seen, many programmes for national economic development that emphasize the need for hydropower development and extractive water practices have major impacts on the lives, livelihoods and cultures of local minority and indigenous communities affected by displacement, flooding of ancestral sites and loss of community cohesion, among other violations.

Factors already discussed, namely drought and floods, coupled with lack of access to safe drinking water and discriminatory forms of hydropower development all converge and intersect with underlying ethnic, political and religious tensions, leading to many forms of conflict. Water stress in countries across the world, coupled with increased competition for resources among already vulnerable groups, is leading to the exacerbation of these conflicts, including inter-ethnic conflict, inter-state warfare, indiscriminate attacks by armed extremist groups, gender-based violence, and mass killings of minority and indigenous activists, including those calling for water justice.


In this section we focus primarily on the use of water by industrial agriculture and the impact this is having on minorities, indigenous peoples and marginalized farming communities around the world.

The demands on resources placed by industrial agriculture, through monocultures and the mass production of food, coupled with diminishing water resources in many agrarian communities are creating the conditions for major humanitarian and human rights crises.


Achieving recognition for minority and indigenous peoples’ rights over water is a vital step towards water justice.

Governance systems that are community-led with autonomy over the protection and guardianship of water systems are crucial for addressing the many challenges and emergencies discussed in previous sections. In this section, we highlight three cases where indigenous governance has either been undermined by majority governments, or where indigenous communities have shown precedents for a positive water future.


A key lesson of this volume is that water is more than simply water.

For many minorities and indigenous peoples, water is an intrinsic part of community spiritual beliefs and cultural identities. Cultural expression plays a vital role in affirming the rights of minorities and indigenous peoples to water. Culture can include a range of water-related practices, including rituals related to religious and spiritual beliefs; artistic expression through storytelling, music, dance, theatre and the visual arts; as well as sports, leisure and the many other activities that are deeply tied to the state of our waters.


Nicolás Salazar Sutil

Commissioning Editor

Minority Rights Group