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A Thirst for Life



On July 28th, 2010, the United Nations General Assembly recognized the universal human right to clean drinking water and sanitation, which called upon governments and international organizations to provide funding and technology transfer to developing countries in order to realize this right. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon proclaimed that “…all people have the right to safe drinking water, sanitation, shelter and basic services…” To explain what this should entail, The World Water Council has defined “water security” as:


“…ensuring protection and improvement of freshwater, coastal and related systems…promotion of sustainable development and political stability…promotion of access to adequate, safe water at affordable cost for every person…[and] protection of the vulnerable population from the risk of water related hazards.”


Tragically, this is not the case for Indigenous communities around the world, where approximately 370 million Indigenous people lack adequate access to water resources. This inequity is a daily reality in all corners of the globe, from poorer, developing nations in Africa to affluent, developed nations in North America. This paper will identify the issues of inadequate access to safe drinking water in various Indigenous communities around the world, and discuss why this is a pressing global justice issue that affects us all, and what we can do about it.





The lack of adequate water resources is, in many cases, a direct result of government policies. The process of colonization has forced many Indigenous communities to relocate so that the Crown can use the land and its resources for various reasons. For example, The San people, an indigenous group in Botswana, Africa, were forced by the government to relocate for the purpose of “conservation.” Those who refused to leave suffered in their daily lives due to lack of access to water. Another example is Indigenous communities in the Cauca Basin of Columbia, where community members were forced upstream by colonialists into harsher, less accessible conditions, making it more difficult to access the water they needed.

Although water laws around the world have proclaimed that no one can own water, governments and rulers have often attempted to control who can access it. Because individuals are prohibited from owning water, the government can use its discretion in how the water should be used for the “common good of citizens.” However, the governments’ control of water is not always for the greater good and is often exploited for economic gain. Legislation dating back to colonial times is still in force in some places, providing the government full control and exclusive rights to its water. Take, for example, the Madhya Pradesh Irrigation Act in India. Enacted in 1931, the Act states that “all rights in the water of any river, natural stream or natural drainage channel, natural lake or other natural collection of water shall vest in the Government”. Furthermore, governments supply inadequate funding, if any, for Indigenous communities to have access to safe drinking water. Many reservations do no not have running water or safe wells, forcing individuals to buy jugs of water from a potable drinking water unit (PDWU). Sometimes, there is not even enough funding to pay the salary for a PDWU operator, as was the case in the Indigenous community of Black Tickle-Domino in Labrador, Canada.

Private ownership and exploitation of natural resources for economic gain also plays a large role in limiting access to clean water in Indigenous communities. Land owners have almost complete control over water running through their property. When private entities use land to extract resources such as oil and mining, they can leave lasting and disastrous effects on the land and water. For example, oil production uses two to five barrels of water per one barrel of oil, and the used water is dumped into tailing ponds. These tailing ponds are highly toxic and are responsible for killing wildlife and absorbing chemicals into groundwater, which puts Indigenous communities, who often live close by to such operations, at risk of consuming contaminated water. The water pollution from oil extraction is also responsible for physical deformities in fish, which are a staple in the diets of many Indigenous communities who live by, and are dependant on, rivers and bodies of water. Additionally, industrial development has led to high levels of mercury in water in and around indigenous communities. In addition to affecting drinking water, the mercury poisons fish that the indigenous communities often use for food and economic gain. This was the case in the 1960s on the reservations of Grassy Narrows and Whitedog in Northwestern Ontario, where a chlor-alkali plant exposed the community to mercury poisoning through consumption of water and fish.




The denial of access to water to any individual or community is a serious global justice issue, as the UN has consistently made clear. In 2002, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights issued General Comment No. 15, declaring that all humans are entitled access to safe, adequate, and accessible water for consumption and sanitation. In the Canadian context, alongside infringing the UN’s declaration, the denial of access to safe and adequate water in Indigenous communities is a violation of our section 7 Charter rights to life, liberty and security of the person. Despite the support of the Supreme Court of Canada on this issue, the Federal Government of Canada refuses to officially recognize access to safe water as a human right. This denial is contrary to the fact that 124 countries recognized and agreed to this right in a UN General Assembly meeting in 2010.

Unfortunately, this problem will only get worse unless steps are taken to rectify it. Projections indicate that developing countries, especially those in Africa and Asia, will continue to be severely affected by lack of access to safe water in future years. These two continents constitute the majority of the earth’s population, and indigenous communities are very likely to be the most negatively impacted. But the problem is not isolated to the international community – just drive a few hours west of downtown Toronto to the Six Nations reserve. Despite being one of the wealthiest reservations in Canada, many community members do not have access to a water pipeline and must purchase and store their water in individual, space-limited water tanks. Access to safe and adequate water has become such a dire issue in Canadian Indigenous communities that they have been described as “fourth-world countries.” While Canada ranks eighth on the UN’s Development Index, Indigenous communities in Canada rank 32nd. These disconcerting statistics are the everyday realities of life in Indigenous communities in Canada and around the world.




Water insecurity can be improved for Indigenous communities at both state and individual levels. Individuals can apply pressure on their government to amend water laws in order to reflect a human rights framework rather than an economic one. Before this reform can be achieved, individuals must be educated about lack of access to water in Indigenous communities and about the essential global issue of water insecurity that will require cooperation now and in the future. For this cooperation to work, states must share resources. Moreover, states and individuals should be prohibited from owning, controlling, and exploiting water resources. The attempt to control access to water is primarily asserted by states and individuals so that they may exploit the resource for economic gain under the guise of utilitarianism. Historically, under Roman law, states and individuals were to be completely prohibited from owning water due to its direct link to survival. Through the channels of domestic and international law, it should be reaffirmed that bodies of water relied upon by communities cannot be privately owned, with sufficient repercussions should these laws be broken. Quebec adopted this policy in 2009 through An Act to Affirm the Collective Nature of Water Resources and Provide for Increased Water Resource Protection. In the Act, Quebec affirmed that water would be “legally considered common heritage” that cannot be appropriated by an individual or state. States can also ensure access to water on a national level by entrenching the right to water in a constitution. Uruguay has done just that by entrenching in their constitution that “water is an essential natural resource and a human right,” protecting the right of all individuals for access to safe water.

Oil production plays a large part in damaging the environment, especially the water that was once used to sustain life in Indigenous communities. One of the biggest problems with oil production is the lack of accountability in monitoring environmental impacts. The official body for monitoring water used in Alberta’s oil production is the Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP). RAMP is funded by the oil industry and is supposed to include Indigenous communities, environmental NGOs, stakeholders, oil developers, and government agencies. However, most Indigenous communities and environmental NGOs have left RAMP because of doubts in making any meaningful progress together. This departure has effectively left the “fox in charge of the henhouse,” leaving only government agencies, stakeholders, and oil developers with involvement in RAMP. Water monitoring must be done by a neutral, outside body with no economic or political interest in the production of oil. This body must be inclusive of neighbouring communities – indigenous and non-indigenous – in a meaningful and respectful way. Additionally, conserving water and protecting it from environmental impacts, such as oil production, is important for ensuring access to adequate water in Indigenous communities. Individuals can help achieve this by using less petroleum-based products in their daily lives. This will lessen the need for large amounts of water used in oil production and reduce both the amount of pollution that could seep into the ground and the toxic tailing ponds left behind.

We must stop viewing water as a commodity that exists for economic benefit and start recognizing it in its true form – the source and necessity of life. When we treat water as a good to be bought and sold, respect for how it is treated and the consequences of its exploitation are completely lost. This commoditization of water leads to pollution, toxic tailing ponds, poisoning, and run-off that often end up in neighbouring Indigenous communities. Additionally, when water is only considered for its economic benefit, poorer and isolated communities – such as Indigenous communities – are rarely, if ever, benefited as they seldom receive monetary gain or access to the water in question. Instead of recognizing water as a commodity, we must recognize that “water is a common concern of humankind.”




            The lack of access to safe, adequate water and sanitation is not just an Indigenous issue; it is a human issue that requires the attention and concern of everyone in order to improve the crisis faced by 370 million people. Water is not simply a basic human right, but a need that is essential for all life on this planet, both human and non-human. Government policy, commercial enterprise, and the lasting and continued effects of colonization have marginalized Indigenous communities in almost every way imaginable, but access to water should not be one of them. Water is not a privilege, but a right that should be honoured for every human being, regardless of geographical location, race, ethnicity, religion, sex, or any other category. Soon, access to water will be an issue for the majority of the Earth’s population, as Asia and Africa will continue to experience higher rates of water insecurity in coming years. The time to act on this alarming and dire issue is now. Measures must be taken to ensure equal access to water for every person, just as the UN had declared in its General Comment No. 15. There is no permittable reason or excuse for allowing the needless suffering and, in many cases, death that results from lack of access to safe water. We can no longer stand idly by and allow disadvantaged groups to have their rights violated in this way. Water insecurity is an unnecessary global injustice that can be rectified with changes to government policy, economic regulation, and every day life. It’s time to make that change and ensure that no person, regardless of who they are or where they live, goes thirsty again.Deirdre