A reflection by Pedro Arrojo-Agudo
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.
Martuwarra dissects the Wunaamin Miliwundi Ranges. Credit: Mark Coles Smith.