People’s right to water

Written By :
17 Jun 2011 12:00

image Written By : Toni Bacala MediaGlobal. Water is the lifeblood of health, livelihood, and culture, particularly in indigenous communities where water provides not only sustenance, but often serves as a vital link to people’s ethnic heritage.
In many countries however, the indigenous perspective on water is being disregarded, putting communities in grave economic and environmental risks.
“There is a fundamental link between access to water and living in dignity,” Valmaine Toki of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues for 2011 – 2013 told MediaGlobal . “Indigenous peoples claim not only a human right but also an environmental right to water.”
There has been a heightening clamor in recent years for the indigenous peoples’ right to water as more indigenous communities are excluded from the governance and management of water resources within their localities.
“The greatest manifestation of the violation of the rights of indigenous peoples is the failure by the state to recognise aboriginal or customary rights to water,” said Toki.
In many rural settings, indigenous populations are inadequately informed on water management. As a result, they become poorly represented in developing water policies that involve their cultural domains.
“The policies implemented by governments do not include an indigenous perspective to water,” Mr Toki said. “Rather, we see examples of mismanagement, over-allocation to intensive agricultural practices, and extractive industries such as mining, resulting in pollution of waterways, ecosystem, and livelihood, ultimately causing harm.”
During the Permanent Forum in New York, the right to water was stressed as an urgent platform for advancing the economic and social development of indigenous communities. This year’s forum focused on examining state policies and commercial activities that unlawfully hinder indigenous populations from accessible and safe water supplies.
Indigenous communities bear the consequences of the inefficient policies that have compromised much of their welfare and tradition.
Policies that privilege extractive industries and the privatisation of water have been reported to hinder traditional seafood gathering practices, limit access to community water services, and threaten the health of nearby communities. Arbitrary management is also feared to weaken the resilience of indigenous communities to the effects of climate change.
Opening the forum’s discussion on the indigenous right to water, special rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking Catarina de Albuquerque cited her recent visit to Costa Rica, where indigenous people do not have access to water for drinking and sanitation. While commending Costa Rica’s efforts in promoting water access to the “overall” population, de Albuquerque stressed that “specific, targeted and deliberate policies and measures were needed to make sure that progress also reaches the excluded segments of the population, including indigenous people.”
In Papua New Guinea, destructive gold mining operations have raised concerns about the effects on the health and safety of indigenous communities.
Mining operations were found to empty tailings and wastewater into the surrounding water systems, polluting major drinking and fishing sources. Indigenous groups have appealed for relocation to recover from their destitute living condition caused by the mining activities.
Poor environmental standards, lack of monitoring, and inadequate responsibility on behalf of the mining companies further aggravates the threat to water systems on which indigenous people depend.
“Indigenous voices strongly call for their rights to be recognised not only within the management but also the ownership and governance of water,” said Toki, referring to the momentum stirred at the Permanent Forum.
While the right to water of indigenous people is highlighted in historical treaties and international laws, recent dialogues have also urged the development of stronger mechanisms to ensure the representation and involvement of indigenous communities in policy-making and implementation.
Mr Toki noted that among the forum’s most promising recommendations was the appointment of a special rapporteur for the Protection of Water and Water Catchment Areas, mandated to protect indigenous regions that are affected by industrial negligence.
The indigenous peoples’ bold assertion of their fundamental right serves as an important example for nations to link sound policy with development.
Just as we all share in the essential gift of water, we are obliged to the unprejudiced recognition of the indigenous communities’ rights to water as a spring of nourishment and cultural vitality.

MediaGlobal is an independent international media organisation, based in the United Nations, creating awareness in the global media on social justice and development issues in the world’s least developed countries.

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