Indigenous Peoples and Water Justice in a Globalizing World

By Sue Jackson, Associate Professor, Griffith University

Water governance has emerged as a priority area of concern to Indigenous communities across the world. A former Chair of the UN Permanent Forum of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli Corpuz, describes the right to water, which includes access and control over water resources, as one of the most basic demands of Indigenous peoples.

Indigenous people protest the drying up of the Darling River. Source ABC News, Sofie Wainwright

Secure access to water is essential for human well-being but in many parts of the world growing competition for freshwater and environmental degradation threaten Indigenous lifeways and livelihoods, as does the loss of autonomy over the care and management of traditional waterscapes. The distinct vulnerability of Indigenous peoples affects the way in which they are materially impacted by the environmental and socioeconomic costs and benefits of water resource development and supply systems, which are rarely, if ever, distributed evenly.

My essay shows that water governance systems at all scales have failed to provide sufficient recognition, respect, and autonomy for Indigenous laws, values, aspirations, and water-use practices and continue to discriminate against Indigenous norms.

Describing the water injustices experienced by Indigenous communities across the world, this essay charts the means by which Indigenous peoples assert their water rights and interests in water governance, from the local water planning scale to international human rights fora.

The essay uses a well-known theory of justice from political science developed by Nancy Fraser. Her multidimensional formulation of justice is found to be well-suited to an Indigenous context where advocates have a conceptualization of justice that is broader than achieving equity and parity, and includes access to decision-making and influential forms of representation in political institutions (such as water advisory committees).

Fraser’s theory is helpful because it enables us to make sense of complex and inter-related notions of water justice. There are so many dimensions to Indigenous claims and aspirations and this can present a problem for those developing water justice strategies and trying to take action.

For example, in Australia today we see Indigenous groups appealing for equity of access to water, recognition of distinct water traditions and cultures, affirmation of the value of dynamic, localized institutions for making decisions about water, and expectations for fair participation in wider, multi-stakeholder processes of water governance.

With Fraser’s model we can see three clear forms or types of injustice: representation (the political realm), recognition (the cultural realm), and redistribution (the economic). Because these are inter-related it can be difficult to decide which claims should be prioritized, and whether it is more effective to work on one before all others.

The work of political theorist Nancy Fraser helps to see the important connections between these claims and to understand that they are mutually reinforcing. The essay provides evidence, for instance, that strong water rights can empower Indigenous groups to undertake river restoration and protection activities, which in turn allows for expressions of identity and articulations of group values.

We can think here of the Columbia River tribes in the U.S. who have strong fishing rights that have delivered them a seat at the table in water allocation processes. From this position, they have pursued the implementation of their preferences for management and drawn on their own knowledge systems and values to inform those actions.

The essay concludes that water allocation planning, as one arena in which decisions are made about water, needs to attend simultaneously to the socioeconomic (distributional), cultural (recognition), and political (representation) dimensions of water justice.

The essay appeared in The Oxford Handbook of Water Politics and Policy, Edited by Ken Conca and Erika Weinthal

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