About this report


Nicolás Salazar Sutil

Who is listening to the Mother of Water sing?

Traditional Quilombola song

Waters carry the songs of the world. In the sky or on the land, waters do not sing to nations. They are only passing through. Underground, overground, across seas and oceans, waters are always in motion. It is because our frameworks for water governance are so static, territorial and nationalistic – and since we do not focus on the water cycle, only basins at best – that modern understanding has silenced water.

The hydrological cycle has been broken.

Minorities and indigenous peoples are particularly exposed to the water crisis. Indigenous peoples’ deep spiritual connections to the waters on their traditional lands and their centuries’ long experience of managing water sources render them especially vulnerable when these interlinkages are disrupted. Systemic discrimination leaves many minority and indigenous communities with precarious access to safe drinking water as governments and private water companies do not invest enough resources in the areas where they live, while it is precisely these groups who often face displacement by large-scale water infrastructure projects which do not benefit them. Meanwhile, many minority and indigenous populations bear the brunt of water-related disasters, such as floods and drought, while facing exclusion in the emergency relief efforts that follow.

Do not blame water. When focusing on water, one often hears complaints that there is either too little or too much; that the water is too polluted or too expensive. But the problem is not water. The problem is not even environmental at its very core. The water crisis is political, economic and social. A crisis of civilization and perhaps de-spiritualization. Solutions depend on restoring relations between people and planet. Our understanding will have to shift from territorial to cyclical. Instead of commercialization, communalization. Instead of nations, Planet.

This need for transition gives us the structure of the opening chapters of the Minority and Indigenous Trends Report 2023: People – Process – Planet. We begin with Anne Poelina’s song to the Martuwarra, and through her life story, which is strung together with episodes of anti-colonial struggle, we are led to a critical study of the European roots of colonial water governance, and the historical processes in Western Europe that led, through colonial expansion, to the global commercialization and predation of water. Chapter Two pays close attention to the human impact of water colonialism, especially when water is used as border control and a weapon for the marginalization of refugees and minority groups. This history leads into Chapter 3, where we are presented with a current account of widespread drought and devastation, focusing on West Africa and Central Asia, the world’s largest landmass. These opening chapters alert us to an urgent need to repair broken relations between People and Planet. At the centre of it all are minority and indigenous worldviews that have never lost sight of that vital connection.

We are especially grateful to Vandana Shiva, Pedro Arrojo-Agudo and Rajendra Singh for joining us and for writing the Forewords and the Afterword. Singh’s contribution ends with a pledge that Minority Rights Group wholeheartedly supports, while we also present a number of recommendations which have been inspired by Arrojo-Agudo’s recent report on indigenous peoples and water.

There are many dimensions to the planet’s water crisis. We focus on the following in our case studies: access, sanitation, pollution, floods, drought, infrastructure, conflict, usage, governance and culture. These are our 10 chosen themes. From China to Chile, from the Athabasca to the Aral, from London to Leweton – the 32 case studies featured in this report reveal a series of global and interconnected patterns.

First, the global water crisis is political. Politicians can just about agree on the climate, but they have so far been completely incapable of agreeing about water. This year was the first time since 1977 that the UN called a Water Conference, declaring this the ‘Year of Water’. The call for Water Action by the UN comes very late. While Minority Rights Group welcomes the outcomes of the 2023 UN Water Conference, a key issue remains – namely that the interests of states are confined within a territorial mindset that does not encompass water as a cycle. For such a mindset the interest is the nation, the market, the development goal. Water does not develop. It is not a goal. What needs to change is not water – water cannot be genetically modified, unlike food. What needs to change is the international political system.

Second, the water crisis is economic. The planet’s waters are being polluted not only by forever chemicals, run-off, plastics, sewage, but also, by the idea that we can drink money. Water has been turned into an economic currency that satisfies corporate dehydration – a mad thirst for profit. Unlike food, which we can survive without for up to a month, a human being cannot survive without water for more than three days. This necessity applies to animals, insects, plants, microbes and fungi. Water is a need, not an economic opportunity.

Finally, this is a social problem. Water does not discriminate between one group of people and another. The water crisis is an intersectional dilemma that cuts across gender, age, ability, class, ethnicity, religion and language. The irony is that we are all made up of water. Up to 79 per cent of our bodies, to be more precise. But even as John Lennon predicates in his 1972 anthem ‘We are all water’, written by Yoko Ono, not all people are given equal access, leaving some to go thirsty, sicken and die.

The global economic, political and social order has killed the cycle. Today, water has become a threat in many parts of the world. As the authors of this volume vividly show, water has become a weapon, a disabling agent, a disease-bearing threat, a border control mechanism and an instrument for repression. At the epicentre of this derangement, is an abuse of the rights of those who live closest to water and often furthest away from infrastructure, namely minorities and indigenous peoples.

It is not enough to say that minorities and indigenous peoples hold the key to climate solutions. Water justice must also focus on the position and responsibility of majority groups. It is imperative that water-guzzling and water-polluting corporations and the systems that support them are made accountable, taxable, punishable and socially responsible for this injustice.

Looking back on the seven-month process that it has taken us to edit this report, and considering the extraordinary indigenous and minority voices we have the honour to publish here, we feel empowered by a collective sense of purpose.. The core message is: we are also running out of time. Urgent action is required to face an existential threat. The most vulnerable, as this report shows, are women, children and persons with disabilities in minority and indigenous communities. It is time to listen to these marginalized voices.

If two-thirds of the planet’s population runs out of clean water in the next 50 years, as experts predict will happen, this will affect every single one of us, regardless of whether we belong to a minority or majority group. Or, as the Lennon song puts it: ‘We are all water from different rivers. One day we’ll dry up all together.’

Image credits

Staff of the NGO Nofy i Androy bit by the Tiomena as they return from distributing food during a famine. Ambovombe, Madagascar. Credit: Emilien Géneviève Rakotonandrasana