Indigenous Peoples

Worldwide indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities suffer disproportionally from economic, social and political marginalization and human rights violations, including poor access to water and sanitation services. As custodians of fragile marine and terrestrial ecosystems their role in equitable and sustainable water management is essential.

Globally indigenous peoples maintain unique social, economic and political systems shaped by languages, cultural practices, religious beliefs and knowledge systems that are distinct to the dominant society. Many indigenous peoples’ determination to sustain and develop their societies as sovereign peoples and long historical connection to specific territories, frequently biodiversity hot-spots, gives them an exceptional position as custodians of some of our most important and fragile ecosystems.

Image: Imran Kadir.


Both UNDP and SIWI consider the realization of human rights key to a sustainable and equitable allocation, management and use of our global water resources. Given that indigenous peoples are among the politically, socially and economically marginalized groups globally, suffering disproportionately from human rights abuses and poverty, strengthening the knowledge about and position of indigenous peoples in water governance processes is a central goal to the WGF.

Historically indigenous peoples have faced systemic discrimination and exclusion from political and economic power, and they continue to face the consequences of this marginalisation. Despite constituting only 5% of the global population indigenous peoples make up 15% of people living in poverty and they disproportionally suffer from illiteracy, disease, infant and maternal mortality and have a shorter life expectancy. Even if accurate data about indigenous peoples’ access to water and sanitation services is scarce, research shows indigenous peoples systematically have lower levels of access than the rest of the population.

The absence of systematic information on indigenous peoples’ health, income, and access to services is to a great extent a consequence of many countries refusing to officially recognize their indigenous peoples. But even in countries where they are recognised, indigenous peoples generally face barriers to equal participation in democratic processes and decision-making influencing their lives and livelihoods.

As a consequence of lacking understanding and recognition of indigenous peoples’ institutions, governance systems and worldviews water and sanitation have proven to be less effective and sustainable in rural indigenous peoples’ communities. Some of the main challenges have been:

  • Clashes with cultural preferences and views on health leading to rejection of solutions
  • Failure to acknowledging local knowledge about environmental conditions causing malfunctioning services
  • Imposition of new and non-sustainable water governance organisations which become inactive due to lack of legitimacy and capacities
  • Incomplete infrastructure due to absence of control and monitoring

It is estimated that more than 5,000 distinct indigenous peoples remain today, comprising approximately 370 million individuals, living in more than 90 countries and in all inhabited continents. Most of the indigenous peoples live in developing countries, but there are also several peoples in the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

As a result of many indigenous peoples’ historical connection to specific territories and that they often maintain lifestyles that to a large extent depend on the local environment they tend to have deep knowledge of the natural resources, including the water resources, in the areas where they live. Complex systems of water harvesting, conservation and management have often been developed in parallel with conflict resolution mechanisms rooted in indigenous peoples’ collective responsibility to protect the water resources for future generations.

As indigenous peoples’ relationship to water often is strongly connected to the spiritual world, with water seen as a sentient being, their management systems look to balance immediate and future human needs with those of plants, animals and spirits based on traditional ecological knowledge and principles and practices. By recognising and including indigenous peoples’ knowledge, practices and institutions sustainable and culturally appropriate water services and conservation and management systems can be developed.

WGF strives to:

  • Contribute to the knowledge about the links between indigenous peoples’ rights and sustainable and equitable water governance through applied research
  • Facilitate dialogues and increase the awareness about indigenous peoples and water by linking actors and building partnerships
  • Support improved water governance and programming by developing and promoting intercultural approaches
  • Provide technical support to development actors on the implementation of respectful and inclusive water governance processes.

Based on the participatory research of the project Towards Transcultural Transparency, carried out in collaboration with the MDG-F and URACCAN, WGF has formulated recommendations on how rural WASH projects can effectively integrate an intercultural approach with the aim of generating more sustainable and cost-effective sanitation and water services, designed and operated in a way that meets the needs and aspirations of indigenous peoples. The recommendations are currently being brought to test in the GoAL WASH project in Paraguay in collaboration with the Institute for Indigenous Peoples.

During 2014 WGF conducted a global mapping of water conflicts between industrial water users and indigenous peoples. The results of the mapping was presented in a World Water Week seminar co-convened with the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs. Currently cases of successful collaboration between industry and indigenous peoples are being explored.


Dr. Alejandro Jiménez

Programme Director


Co-operation, Dialogue, GoAL WaSH, Governance, Human rights, Indigenous peoples, Interculturality, Participation, Partnership, Recommendations, Rights holders, Sustainability, Vulnerability reduction, Water management