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Access to water: UN must consider indigenous proposals

29 February, 2024 | Ricardo Changala

On February 26, 2024, the sixth edition of the United Nations Environment Assembly began in Nairobi, bringing together the 193 member states of the UN every two years to collectively address critical environmental issues facing the planet. Apart from the UN General Assembly meetings, this is the only moment when all member states participate.

The Assembly was established in 2012 as a result of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, known as Rio+20, held in Brazil.

As a result of the debates of the 2022 session of the Environment Assembly, negotiations have begun on the first internationally legally binding instrument to end plastic pollution, which is expected to be completed by the end of 2024.

In this edition, one of the central themes is water scarcity and protection of water resources.

This UN Environment Assembly has been preceded by another international forum specifically dedicated to water: the UN Water Conference 2023, held from March 22 to 24 in New York.

In this context, more than 500 organizations, Indigenous Peoples, and social movements issued a resolution reaffirming the fundamental right to water and sanitation, the need to prioritize sustainable management of rivers, lakes, wetlands, springs, and aquifers, ensuring their good ecological status; recognizing and respecting the practices and community water and sanitation management organizations promoted, among others, by peasant communities and indigenous peoples.

Furthermore, the resolution establishes that.

“…Indigenous Peoples have distinct and inherent rights, as well as their own knowledge systems, to relate to water in a harmonious way, so States must recognize them as collective rights-holders and respect their territorial rights, the right to self-determination, and the right to be consulted to obtain prior, free, and informed consent regarding any project that affects them, and ensure that the management of their livelihoods, including water, is carried out in accordance with their own norms, in compliance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

Indeed, there are multiple examples whereby the actions of Indigenous Peoples, supported by their traditional knowledge combined with technological innovations, even in notably adverse contexts, manage to preserve and access water resources in general, in the absence or inefficiency of state entities.

For instance, over 55 million inhabitants of Mexico struggle to access potable water services, especially in rural areas where only four out of every ten people have daily access to the essential liquid.

Indigenous communities, which have an ancestral relationship with their environment, including water resources, are driving multiple responses to protect and conserve water, including various water harvesting systems such as those seen in some places in the states of Campeche, Oaxaca, and Chiapas.

A recent material from UNAM compiles various examples and life stories related to water harvesting systems, alternative water networks built by previous generations but still efficient, water collection containers, or UV-based water purification systems.

The state of Chiapas, with a high percentage of indigenous population, holds nearly 40% of the national water resources with a population of just over five million people.

However, despite being the political entity with the highest amount of water available per capita, a significant part of its population suffers from lack of access to safe water supply, with the impact this implies for health, education, and the enjoyment of a healthy environment for its population.

Out of the 124 municipalities comprising the state, only 41 have functioning wastewater treatment plants, which means, among other consequences, that 70% of the rivers in Chiapas are contaminated. 13.4% of households lack access to piped water, while the State boasts the lowest national percentage of water allocated for human consumption as it has only 5 water treatment plants.

Towards the end of 2023, the third Water Meeting on proposals from women and Indigenous Peoples took place in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, with participants from ten municipalities in Chiapas and some from Oaxaca.

At the conclusion, a statement was issued by the indigenous women who participated in the event, pointing out that, despite living in a territory with abundant water resources, “From dawn, carrying our sons and daughters, we travel kilometers in search of a resource that is often contaminated by pesticides and harmful microorganisms.”

The women demand not to continue being relegated to an imposed destiny, demanding that their voices be recognized, and their demands respected.

Among other things, they propose a water justice plan for Chiapas with a collective commitment and concrete actions to transform the current reality so that the right to water is accessible to all people.

Similar initiatives can be seen in other countries in the region and around the world.

Therefore, beyond other issues on the complex agenda of the UN Environment Assembly, it is to be expected that these proposals and initiatives will not only be forgotten but also considered to promote sustainable actions and public policies.

As urged by the declaration of March 2023:

As subjects and holders of human rights and defenders of water, often criminalized and persecuted for defending human rights, we demand that the UN prioritize dialogue and collaboration with the most vulnerable communities in the implementation of SDG 6, including Indigenous Peoples, peasant communities, those living in informal settlements, populations discriminated against based on gender, ancestry, and class, and all those who still do not have guaranteed access to clean water and sanitation.”