Water Access and Availability for Our Indigenous Peoples

6.2 percent of the global population, approximately 476 million people, are Indigenous Peoples. These indigenous peoples are spread over 90 countries all around the world. Indigenous people are a special group of people because they are holders of a vast diversity of unique cultures, traditions, languages and knowledge systems. They have unique worldviews and priorities which extend to their concepts of development. They hold a special relationship with their lands which informs how they treat their natural resources.

As a way of preserving the cultural heritage that is the indigenous peoples, the United Nations instituted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples or UNDRIP. This declaration emphasizes “the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous peoples of the world.” In essence, the UNDRIP seeks to emphasize the human rights of indigenous people and cater to their unique circumstances. One reason why UNDRIP is needed has to do with the fact that indigenous people are one of the most vulnerable groups.

The UNDRIP recognizes the following:

  • The indigenous peoples’ right to determine and develop priorities for the development or use of their lands or territories.

  • The indigenous peoples’ right to maintain and strengthen their spiritual relationship with traditionally owned or occupied lands, territories, waters, coastal seas, and other resources.

On top of this, the UNDRIP seeks to uphold the responsibilities of the indigenous people to the generations that would follow them.

The first article of the UNDRIP stated, word for word, “Indigenous peoples have the right to the full enjoyment, as a collective or as individuals, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms as recognized in the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights law.”

The realization of all human rights entails the fulfilment of basic needs such as clean drinking water and sanitation. The United Nations General Assembly recognizes this need in their Resolution 64/292. Thus, the resolution also includes recommendations for providing financial resources, help capacity-building, and technology transfer with the ultimate goal of providing safe, clean, accessible, and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all especially in vulnerable populations. Since indigenous peoples are part of vulnerable populations, they are eligible for the assistance described in Resolution 64/292.

General Comment No. 15 also mentioned that access to safe water and sanitation is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights. This was adopted by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in their Article I.1 which states that "The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights".

The right to water present in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights entitles everyone, without discrimination, to have access to water that is sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible, and affordable.

Human Rights Related to the Right to Water

The right to water has a close relationship or is intertwined with other rights such as the right to sanitation, health, housing, and even nondiscrimination. The right to water and all its related human rights should be afforded to indigenous people.

UDHR Article 25 - The Right to Health

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or UDHR mentioned the right to adequate health. Verbatim the declaration states, “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

The right to health includes the right to safe and pollution-free natural environments and water sources. Thus, everyone is obligated to prevent contamination of the water sources that the indigenous people rely on.

The right to health could also be interpreted to include:

  • The necessity to ensure that there is an adequate supply of safe and potable water for the purpose of basic sanitation. Within the context of the right to water, basic sanitation leads to health but it requires access to ample amounts of safe water.

  • The prevention and reduction of the population’s exposure to harmful substances such as radiation and harmful chemicals, or other detrimental environmental conditions that directly or indirectly impact human health. Within the context of the right to water, the water distribution systems should be free from and protected against these harmful substances.

  • The right to health encompasses the right to healthy natural environments. This right involves the obligation to “prevent threats to health from unsafe and toxic water conditions.” To maintain a healthy natural environment, in the context of the right to water, would entail protecting bodies of water from pollution and other things that may degrade their quality.

UDHR Article 25 - The Right to Sanitation

The right to sanitation entitles everyone, without discrimination, to “have physical and affordable access to sanitation, in all spheres of life, that is safe, hygienic, secure, and socially and culturally acceptable, and that provides privacy and ensures dignity.” To realize this right, everyone should be given access to safe, hygienic, and secure water because it is an essential component of sanitation. Once the right to sanitation is realized, it can be said that a significant portion of what is known as a decent life is fulfilled.

UDHR Article 25 - The Right to Housing

Inadequate water, water of poor quality, and lack of sanitation is a problem that plagues several First Nation communities. This lack of water and sanitation can hinder the realization of the right to housing. Aside from that, water and wastewater infrastructure development are impeded as well. Only by securing the need for water and sanitation first can the problem of inadequate housing, water infrastructure, and wastewater infrastructure be addressed.

The right to housing could be extended to include facilities within the house that are essential for health, security, comfort, and nutrition. Thus, the right to housing should afford the beneficiaries to have sustainable access to natural and common resources, safe drinking water, energy for cooking, heating and lighting, sanitation and washing facilities, means of food storage, refuse disposal, site drainage and emergency services. The right to water is heavily involved in the provision of safe drinking water, sanitation and washing facilities, and site drainage which is why there is a strong link between the right to water and the right to housing.

UDHR Article 1, 2, 7 - Right to Nondiscrimination

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 1 states that “everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinions, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” The “rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration” include the right to water and all of its related rights.

Indigenous people carry with them unique religious perspectives, political or other opinions, national or social origin, property ownership, and racial origins. These are aspects of both individuals and groups that could serve as the distinction that outside offending forces would leverage for their discriminatory actions.

By eradicating discrimination, hindrances to the actions geared towards catering to the unique needs of indigenous people would be reduced. In the context of the right to water, indigenous people should be given the opportunity to have access to safe and adequate water with consideration to all aspects that define them as an indigenous group.

Using Human Rights to Advance the Right to Water

Due to their distinctive perspectives relating to the usage of resources, it has been recognized that they play an important role in the stewardship of local land and waters. Due to their management role towards local land and waters, indigenous groups are essential to maintaining biodiversity and water resources within their territories. Unfortunately, they remain to be vulnerable to systemic discrimination and ongoing exclusion from political and economic power, resulting in ongoing marginalization.

The marginalization of indigenous peoples leads to poor access to water and sanitation services for the group of people mentioned. Without access to water and sanitation, their health would be compromised. Fortunately, more and more attention is drawn to their special relationship with the local land and waters, and how they act as stewards that preserve such resources.

Indigenous peoples often regard some inanimate things, like water bodies for instance, as sentient and they try to create some form of bond with them. This is the reason why indigenous people tend to treat nature and natural resources with reverence and respect. Indigenous people have a deep understanding of the notion that human needs should not compromise the health of plants, animals, and the land itself.


The ultimate goal is to develop sustainable and culturally appropriate water services and conservation and management systems for indigenous peoples. All the while, recognizing and including indigenous peoples’ knowledge, practices and institutions in the process.


Most people are unaware, have a lack of understanding, or fail to recognize the fact that indigenous peoples have their own governance approaches, rights, obligations, and worldviews that they could offer with regards to the management of water resources. This is the reason why most indigenous communities are not given a voice when it comes to the management of water resources. Even though they have an inherent obligation to protect such resources as they rely on them. Due to this, effective and sustainable provision of water and sanitation services in rural indigenous peoples’ communities are not as effective, especially when there is inadequate understanding of the local context.

When it comes to water, the major challenges that indigenous people have to deal with include:

  • The disproportionate impact of climate change which has a greater impact on communities that have a strong reliance on their local environments.

  • Failure to consider the perspectives of locals and failure to consider the inputs coming from the indigenous people with regards to the decision-making process in addressing environmental issues.

  • The establishment of non-sustainable water governance organizations that may lack legitimacy or may try to impose their worldview over the indigenous locals, mainly due to the fact that they are not constructed within the local knowledge or institution.

  • Failure to understand the deep relationship that indigenous peoples have with their lands, waters, and natural resources, and how this bond can affect local water governance.

  • The impacts of colonization on geographical territories, and on the use of knowledge for the purpose of addressing water issues.

  • Differences in viewpoints with regards to the appropriateness of different water and sanitation options fueled by differences in culture.

Encouraging meaningful participation

  • There are representative organizations that people can collaborate with to institute a commission dedicated to First World Countries. This commission could then monitor and evaluate government performance related to water and wastewater in these First World Countries. The commission should also pay close attention to indigenous customs, laws, and practices.

  • The appropriate government agencies should take into account the cultural aspects of water when it comes to getting input or participation from the indigenous communities. Culturally acceptable, sustainable water policies, and practical solutions work best within indigenous reserves.

  • Engage the appropriate government agencies to study their past failures with regards to community engagement and funding commitments for water and wastewater system development with the ultimate goal of facilitating learning and preventing replication of these failures.

  • Seek technical advice from experts so that system designs that can accommodate population growth, account for sustainable life-cycle costs, and are adaptable to decreased source water quality over time can be utilized.

  • Realize that indigenous groups are marginalized and are unable to participate in community decision-making. Find ways so that these groups would be given ample opportunity to participate in the essential parts of the decision-making process.

Leveraging Human Rights to Demand Transparency and Accountability

It should be stressed that developing a plan with the federal government to address the local water and sanitation crisis is a matter of human rights. Since this problem is a matter of human rights, plans geared towards addressing such problems should be concrete, collaborative, and given due importance.

The indigenous community, whose human rights to water are being upheld, should be given the means and should be assisted to develop a community-based assessment of water and wastewater assets. This assessment should be done annually, or more frequently than that if possible, to give the appropriate agencies ample information regarding where funding commitments are failing to keep pace with investment needs.

Transparency for indigenous communities should be upheld. Within the context of the right to water, they should be given a fair, transparent process for determining financial support, including a formula for calculating capital, operation, and maintenance funding levels.

Draw attention to community concerns from provincial, national, or international audiences

When it comes to issues where human rights are at stake, getting attention from audiences beyond the local vicinity would improve the chances of the issue being addressed. With the advent of social media, it is easier for the common folk to band together and motivate government officials to resolve the human rights issue. Involving traditional media could motivate the officials even more. There are also instances where non-locals are more proactive towards solving the issue which is why it is a good idea to try and involve non-locals. This is especially true in times of emergencies, natural disasters, and other crises. Local, provincial, and even national audiences may not be able to respond. By involving international audiences, the messages that the indigenous community is trying to convey would be heard by a wider audience.







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