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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.

Foreword and recommendations

  • 01
    A reflection by Pedro Arrojo-Agudo

    Pedro Arrojo-Agudo is UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation. I am grateful for the honour of this invitation to write the Foreword to this important publication for Indigenous Peoples and minorities…

    1 min read

  • 02
    A reflection by Rajendra Singh

    Rajendra Singh is a water campaigner and activist from Rajasthan in India. If we really bothered to understand the character of water, not just seek to control water for human purposes, we would be able to support thriving communities that live…

    1 min read

  • 03
    Recommendations

    Governments should: Uphold every person’s fundamental right to safe drinking water and sanitation, regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, language, caste, descent, gender, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, national,…

    1 min read

  • Pedro Arrojo-Agudo is UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation.

    I am grateful for the honour of this invitation to write the Foreword to this important publication for Indigenous Peoples and minorities worldwide; I must confess that I am overwhelmed by the consideration I have received.  

    When, at the beginning of my mandate, I committed to producing a thematic report that would end up being entitled The Human Rights to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation of Indigenous Peoples: State of Affairs and Lessons from Ancestral Cultures, I was unaware of the challenges it would present. After I had started working on it, I soon realized that Indigenous Peoples’ relationship with water was too complex to adequately develop a report in a few months. I felt overwhelmed by the flood of information received, so I decided to continue this commitment during the second year of the mandate with the help of my dear brother Francisco Calí Tzay, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples. His unconditional support reassured me and allowed me to face this important challenge. 

    The world should reflect on the tremendous injustice that Indigenous Peoples, being the original peoples of islands and continents all over the planet, still live today marginalized and often in conditions of extreme poverty. In addition, the environmental degradation of their lands and natural resources, derived from voracious investments and the lack of participation in decision-making processes, poses additional risks to their livelihoods and to their collective identities by destroying the biodiversity of their territories, polluting water resources, and forcing the displacement of entire communities. In sum, aggravating their situation of vulnerability while hindering the progressive realization of their rights.  

    Despite suffering all sorts of injustices, Indigenous Peoples have been able to preserve their worldviews, knowledge and ancestral practices. For Indigenous Peoples, water is the blue soul of life: part of an interconnected whole that includes lands, living beings and their own human communities, and that promotes integrated territorial management based on a deep and even reverent  respect for the rivers, springs, lakes and wetlands that they care for in an exemplary manner – a role particularly developed by women, who, as life-givers and transmitters of knowledge and cultural traditions, promote virtuous uses of water for present and future generations.  

    In doing so, the visions of Indigenous Peoples offer a genuine expression of the principle of sustainability and the ecosystem-based approach we are trying to promote today in water planning and management worldwide: understanding water as a common good rather than a commodity, accessible to all but not appropriated by anyone. Its consequent community management offers us an example of democratic water governance under a human rights-based approach that leaves no one behind.  

    These are, in fact, the two challenges that I have been addressing as the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, in order to face the paradoxical global water crisis on the Blue Planet. Today, two billion people lack guaranteed access to drinking water; however, most of them are not thirsty people without water in their living environments, but extremely impoverished people who live next to polluted rivers and aquifers. Indigenous Peoples suffer the additional consequences of systematic marginalization and the lack of Free, Prior, Informed Consent established in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Even in the countries that formally recognize Indigenous Peoples, their right to self-determination and control over their territories and water is not guaranteed, and their right to free, prior and informed consent is not fulfilled or is otherwise distorted.  

    It is essential to highlight how, through persevering with strategic work at the international level and always preserving the unity in the great diversity that characterizes them, Indigenous Peoples have achieved significant advances in recognizing their rights. For instance, Article 25 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples determines their right to own, occupy and use the lands, resources and waters of their territories, establishing legal recognition and due respect for their customs, traditions and land tenure systems. 

    To conclude, allow me to close with a self-critical acknowledgement to Indigenous Peoples, asking for forgiveness, as a white man who descends from colonizing powers, for the abuses and injustices committed; and to express my recognition and gratitude for the example of dignity, perseverance and wisdom that the Indigenous Peoples of the world have given us and continue to give us every day.

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

  • Rajendra Singh is a water campaigner and activist from Rajasthan in India.

    If we really bothered to understand the character of water, not just seek to control water for human purposes, we would be able to support thriving communities that live with water, rather than against it.  

    We are telling ourselves that with this or that technology, with this engineering model or that, we will find solutions to water problems. Water is not a problem. Nor is water something that can be understood through modern engineering and technology. Water is life. Water is its own technology.  

    You can genetically modify food, but you cannot genetically modify water. Chemically speaking, water is unmodifiable. 

    The character of modern engineering and technology systems is based on command and control. Modern engineering and technology dream of piping, channelling and damming the water. We do not antagonize those visions of development, but we say: You will never control water. We say: Your technology and engineering are not for water, or for communities living with water. Modern technology and engineering have been developed only for selfish purposes, for greed, and from a place of arrogance that has nothing to do with water. 

    Nature and people are one. Modern technologies and engineering systems divide waters and divide peoples. Thus, you end up with majorities here, minorities there, scarcity here, excess there, too much water here and too little over there. To move forward we need to achieve integration between water and all humankind.  

    We call on everyone to integrate water for the benefit of all communities, especially those who are suffering water injustice – indigenous peoples, tribal communities, women, minorities. As this report shows, water is a matter of integration. 

    If you do not integrate, so you create a problem. And this problem is in most cases only exacerbated by modern science, engineering and technology. Do not think about technological solutions when it comes to water. Think of a better future. Think of the voice of water – the voice of the planet.  

    This is not a very easy task. Yet we have before us the knowledge and strength to move positively into the future. What I know, what I have achieved, was taught to me not by modern science, but by an illiterate and blind peasant from rural Rajasthan. An old farmer taught me how to rejuvenate rivers, and that is what I have devoted my entire life to. During my lifetime, I have restored 12 rivers, and with many communities up and down Rajasthan, we have created almost 9,000 johads – traditional water conservation earthworks – which have not only rejuvenated water systems in the driest region in India. Our efforts have also brought back rainfall – we have restored the climate itself. We did not use modern science and technology imposed from elsewhere, we learned from indigenous, tribal and peasant knowledge keepers. 

    Together, we call for a future where water systems are rejuvenated, and where community is once again understood not as a division between us and them, minority and majority, but as a planetary fellowship made up of all living beings, all connected to water. Community is thus understood as a fellowship that includes humans, plants, animals, fungi. 

    Together, we call for a future that respects and rejuvenates water systems. 

    In March 2023, a delegation of the People’s World Commission on Drought and Flood, which I chair, attended the UN Water Conference. Together, we drafted a pledge to rejuvenate the water cycle, based on some of the principles that have guided my work. 

    I encourage you to read this pledge, which has been drafted with kind support from Minority Rights Group’s commissioning editor Nicolas Salazar Sutil, along with numerous other committee members who have helped to make this pledge a clear and transparent call for the future of water. 

    This report is a stark reminder that if we do not act now, and if our pledge to rejuvenate the water cycle is not fulfilled, the many injustices committed against minority and indigenous peoples will continue, and water may vanish from the very heart of our communities. 

    I kindly request that you read our pledge, that you sign our petition and that you help us fulfil a fair water future.  

    Join us in our effort to rejuvenate the planet’s water cycle. 

    World pledge to rejuvenate the water cycle

    I am water. I stand before you as water. Together, we advocate a healthy water cycle. 

    Our support is for the kinship of people and water. Through water, we connect: 

    • Person: Every one of us carries water in our bodies;  
    • Process: Every community comes together and can flourish with and around water;
    • Planet: Water gives life and balance to this Earth: one Planet – one Water. 

    It is within our lifetime that the water cycle has been broken. Our solution is rejuvenation.  

    Rejuvenation is a paradigm shift in thought and practice that goes beyond the dominant human centric worldview. We encourage 10 key shifts: 

    1. From narrow to all-encompassing concepts, terms and frameworks that cover all stages of the water cycle. 
    2. From data and information to Wisdom, weaving minority and indigenous traditional knowledge systems with modern science, art and technology.
    3. From formal education systems to living knowledge that energizes youth.
    4. From wasteful abuse to judicious circulation and guardianship of waters. 
    5. From commercialization to communitization, where community is understood as the fellowship of all living beings. 
    6. From a general attitude of indifference and apathy to organized action and work for water.
    7. From insensitivity to a sensitive awareness of every water body as a unique and biodiverse ecosystem. 
    8. From short-term goals and timeframes to life-long commitments to present and future generations. 
    9. From narrow economic value to broad and fair ecological values. 
    10. From ownership and control to free-flowing water, acknowledging the equitable rights of all living beings.

    We hold the collective conviction that fulfilment of this pledge can lead to climate change adaptation, restoration and resilience. These changes will condense in one shift from outer to inner understanding, paving the way for a spiritual life that strives for happiness, well-being and peace.  

    We invite everyone to join us in fulfilling this pledge.

    Sign the pledge >

    We are grateful to members of the World Peoples Forum on Drought and Flood for their collaboration in the production of this chapter.

  • Governments should:

    • Uphold every person’s fundamental right to safe drinking water and sanitation, regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, language, caste, descent, gender, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, national, social or geographical origin, disability, birth or other status. This right must be respected without discrimination.
    • Ensure that the necessary infrastructure is in place to ensure the fulfillment of this right for all people. This includes water points that are accessible, including for persons with disabilities, collection of wastewater and water treatment facilities, where necessary.
    • Establish minimum adequate standards for safe drinking water and ensure secure supplies for all, without discrimination. These minimum standards should also apply to situations such as extreme weather events which affect regular water supplies. Adequate provision for emergency water supplies should be made ahead of time.
    • Minimize pollution through the adoption and strict implementation of regulations governing polluters. Victims of pollution should be able to seek redress through legal proceedings, including compensation and penalties for violations. Adequate, long-term investment in water infrastructure, including its maintenance, must be secured.
    • Take a human rights-based approach for any project involving water and sanitation. This means that all affected communities should be able to participate effectively and meaningfully in decision-making processes. Any information necessary to take informed decisions should be provided in ways relevant to the affected community.
    • Apply effective and meaningful participation rights to all stages of any water and sanitation infrastructure project, including the design and setting up of independent complaints mechanisms, in order to ensure that these are transparent and accessible in ways relevant to the affected communities. Resulting water and sanitation projects should be accessible to all, without discrimination.
    • Fully involve groups that face intersectional discrimination as members of minority and indigenous communities, including minority and indigenous women, children, elderly, persons with disabilities and LGBTQI+ persons. Their access to safe drinking water and sanitation forms a key litmus test for the inclusivity of outcomes. Collect and update data that is completely disaggregated in order to measure this.
    • Uphold indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination, particularly their right to free, prior and informed consent, before any action is taken that affects their ancestral domains and their access to water and aquatic ecosystems. This right extends to the management of water basins and aquifers outside their territories that affect their water sources.
    • Record, recognize and protect communal customary land and water rights. These include access rights to water sources.
    • Ensure the effective participation of minorities and indigenous peoples in projects to mitigate and adapt to the adverse water-related impacts of climate change, including droughts, floods, extreme weather events, melting glaciers and rising sea levels.
    • Support minority and indigenous traditional knowledge systems, especially related to water management, by providing funding to communities for their documentation. Extend and enforce legally protected status to water-related cultural heritage sites.
    • Institute and facilitate equitable conflict resolution processes when water rights are in dispute, involving the communities themselves in their design, for instance pastoralists and settled communities.
    • Where drinking water is privatized, ensure that the right to clean drinking water and sanitation is respected by private sector actors, for example by instituting minimum standards of quality and access as well as regulations holding water companies to account.
    • Do not criminalize environmental and water rights activists, including those belonging to minorities and indigenous peoples, for their activities seeking to ensure that all persons’ right to clean drinking water and sanitation is respected.
    • Understand that water is seen by many minority and indigenous communities through holistic cultural and spiritual frameworks. The initiation and implementation of water and sanitation projects should be accompanied by intercultural dialogues giving due place and regard to these perspectives.

    Companies should:

    • Publicly commit to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and carry out human rights due diligence in order to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for any adverse impacts of their activities on minority and indigenous communities’ right to safe drinking water and sanitation. This includes their access to water and aquatic ecosystems, including water basins and aquifers outside their territories that affect their water sources.
    • Conduct effective and meaningful participation processes with minority and indigenous communities ahead of any activity that affects their right to safe drinking water and sanitation. Ensure that the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples is obtained ahead of any activity affecting them.
    • Fully involve groups that face intersectional discrimination as members of minority and indigenous communities, including minority and indigenous women, children, elderly, persons with disabilities and LGBTQI+ persons.
    • Establish complaints mechanisms involving minority and indigenous communities in their design and implementation, while ensuring that these are accessible in ways that are relevant to the communities concerned.
    • Ahead of any activity that draws on and/or privatizes the water sources of local minority and indigenous communities, ensure that adequate alternative safe water sources remain freely available.

    UN agencies, international financial institutions, other international and regional organizations, and NGOs should:

    • Carry out human rights due diligence in order to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for any adverse impacts of their activities on minority and indigenous communities’ right to safe drinking water and sanitation. This includes their access to water and aquatic ecosystems, including water basins and aquifers outside their territories that affect their water sources.
    • Conduct effective and meaningful participation processes with minority and indigenous communities ahead of any activity that affects this right. Ensure that the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples is obtained ahead of any activity affecting them.
    • Establish complaints mechanisms involving minority and indigenous communities in their design and implementation, while ensuring that these are accessible in ways that are relevant to the communities concerned.
    • Fully involve groups that face intersectional discrimination as members of minority and indigenous communities, including minority and indigenous women, children, elderly, persons with disabilities and LGBTQI+ persons. Their access to safe drinking water and sanitation forms a key litmus test for the inclusivity of outcomes. Collect and update data that is completely disaggregated in order to measure this.

    Photo: The polluted Niger delta as seen from the air. Credit: Milieudefensie (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Access

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.

Sanitation

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.

Pollution

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).

Floods

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.

Drought

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.

Infrastructure

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.

Conflict

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.

Usage

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.

Governance

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.

Culture

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.

Author(s)

Nicolás Salazar Sutil

Commissioning Editor

Minority Rights Group