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Press Conference on Right of Indigenous Peoples to Water

23 May 2011
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference on Right of Indigenous Peoples to Water


Indigenous peoples must be consulted — and their right to free, prior and informed consent respected — if the target of halving the proportion of people lacking access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation was to be reached by 2015, in line with the Millennium Development Goals, members of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues said at a Headquarters press conference today.

Valmaine Toki, Permanent Forum member from New Zealand, said that message could not come too soon for the 1.1 billion people lacking access to safe drinking water and the 2.6 billion in need of adequate sanitation.  Indigenous peoples were still being sidelined in debates about State water-management policies and strategies to address other water issues.

She praised Bolivia’s opposition to the privatization of water, having banned the participation of multinational corporations in water supply following massive protests 10 years ago in Cochabamba, the country’s third-largest city.  Developed countries, including New Zealand, had developed safeguards and created guidelines for joint ventures in their work with indigenous peoples, she noted, emphasizing that community-driven solutions were the answer.

Ms. Toki went on to stress that Governments and United Nations agencies alike must ensure respect for articles 32 and 25 of the 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which outlined, respectively, the right of indigenous peoples to determine the priorities in the development or use of their lands and resources, as well as the right to strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with their lands, territories, waters and coastal seas.

Offering context, Tia Oros Peters, a Native American expert and Executive Director of the Seventh Generation Fund, said that, according to Zuni Native American culture, the world had begun as a moist and fertile place from which cultures had evolved and species had grown.  All freshwater sources existing in ancient, as well as modern, times were constantly regenerated.  She asked how it could be, then, that people could go thirsty, and that a child died from a water-related disease every eight seconds.  Women had to walk miles and risk their lives to secure a dirty bucket of water.  What did that mean, and was the world prepared to address those issues?

Ms. Peters said the main problem was “acquacide” — the purposeful killing of waters, which prevented Mother Earth from supporting life, adding that the Zuni viewed aquifers as part of the spiritual world.  Dumping toxins into water, damaging springs and destroying every possible drop of clean water killed the water spirit, she said.  “We cannot survive if water is dead.”  In the last seven years, the Seventh Generation Fund, among others, had advanced the issue of water as a human right, linking it to the right to self-determination, she said, urging the selection of water as a special theme for the Permanent Forum.  A United Nations meeting of experts on water should be organized to give indigenous peoples full and equal participation in creating indicators of water well-being.

Rounding out the panel, Bertie Xavier, Permanent Forum member from Guyana, offered a solution from his country, where 90 per cent of indigenous peoples relied on water from rivers, lakes and other sources.  They worked with the Government to protect waterways and with non-governmental organizations to develop guidelines on water use, he said.  Moreover, Guyana Water Incorporated, the Government agency overseeing the delivery of water to indigenous peoples, had developed solar-driven water pumps in the last three years which had benefited several communities, he said.  For their part, those communities had ensured that their voices were heard and their inputs respected.  “This is what we’ve been doing,” Mr. Xavier said, urging the Permanent Forum to work with Governments in developing strategic water-management plans around the world.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.