Institut für Ökologie und Aktions-Ethnologie

WG Water

The earth – our blue planet

Water is life. It is drinking water for humans and animals, but also used for the production of food, e.g. through irrigation.

Roughly two thirds of the planet  is covered by water, but only 2.6% is freshwater. This fresh water is increasingly threatened by pollution and overuse: pollution of water by chemicals, oil or radioactivity; the drying up of springs through logging and sinking of the ground-water level through overuse result in scarcity of clean water. (Further problem areas are the manipulation of water courses, the erection of huge dams for energy production and irrigation, the expansion of arid areas, and the drainage of humid areas.)

At the same time the usage of freshwater rises continually. Reasons include the rapid population growth, migration to large urban areas and the use of water-intensive technologies in agriculture (70% of water consumption is due to farming).

Experts give warnings that as early as 2025 around one third of the world’s population will suffer from water shortage and that during the following decades there will be an increase in conflicts relating to water.

Even today one fifth of the world’s population (ca. 1.4 billion people) do not have enough clean drinking water. Every year over 2.2 million people die as a consequence of dirty water, and 80% of all diseases in developing countries are caused by the use of dirty water.

Despite these alarming figures industrial countries thoughtlessly continue to fill swimming pools, water golfing areas and flush toilets with drinking water. Whereas a person in the USA uses 600 litres of water daily, on average, people in developing countries have to rely on less than 40 litres per  person each day.

Access to clean water does not depend on technological and economical development but is mainly a question of  practical usage and  fair distribution.

Water is an essential belonging to everybody, and should be protected and used in a sustainable manner. Access to clean drinking water should become a general human right.

The UN human rights declaration contains the right to life (article 3) and a person’s “right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family”; food is one of the rights mentioned. Not until November 2002 did the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights compose the “General Comment No. 15” asserting the right to water.


Indigenous people and water

Indigenous peoples are often amongst the poorest and most marginalized population groups of a country. They posses only small decision-making powers and minor influence. Thus they suffer more often from lack of clean drinking water and are often particularly strongly afflicted with diseases caused by the use of dirty water. The arsenic poisoning of hundreds of  thousands of people in Bangladesh (cf. Tages-Anzeiger of Tue, July 8 2003) or the cholera outbreak in poor areas in the South of Africa are just two examples.

Many areas inhabited by indigenous peoples are affected by pollution due to oil exploitation or mining, mostly in remote rural areas. This in return can have direct consequences for the quality of their drinking water (cf. article on mining).

The erection of dams for energy production often results in (forced) relocation, also of indigenous peoples as their original habitation areas are being flooded. The most current case is the Three Gorges Dam in China (cf. article).

Many indigenous communities are still dependent on traditional economics such as fishing or irrigation agriculture. The pollution of rivers and lakes or the overuse of ground-water lead to a restriction of their often self-reliant economic activities, and their financial situation is further aggravated.

Furthermore it must be borne in mind that for many indigenous groups water has a special, spiritual and cultural meaning.

The “Indigenous Peoples Kyoto Water Declaration”, which was launched by indigenous peoples from around the world within the scope of the 3rd world water forum in Kyoto in March 2003, requests that indigenous communities can execute their right to self-determination on water at all levels, and thus shape the administration, use, regulation, conservation and renewal of their water resources in unison with their special understanding of water as a sacred resource, one which cannot be possessed (cf. the article on the privatisation in the water sector).

link to the Water Declaration of Indigenous Peoples of March 2003:

infoe magazine No. 18: Water

Esther Leemann, lecturer at the Institute of Social Anthropology of the University of Zurich , held a proseminar entitled “indigenous people and water” in collaboration with infoe Switzerland in the summer semester 2003.

The occasion was the international year of freshwater 2003 declared by the United Nations.

During the semester students dealt with the manifold problems surrounding water and with the question of how marginalized groups, in particular indigenous groups, are affected by these problems and their reactions to them. The resulting seminar papers were published as a short version in the infoe magazine No. 18 in autumn 2003.


The following topics were treated:

Mining and water pollution

Dams and relocation

Traditional water rights

Oversalting of the Aral Sea

Water nomads

Privatisation of drinking water

Diseases caused by dirty water

Further Literature

General: (Worldwide search engine for water with e.g. regional and thematic filters) (Official homepage of the 3rd World Water Forum, held in March 2003 in Kyoto, Japan) (International Water Policy Think Tank) (International Rivers Network) (Information mainly on Latin America) (Mainly reports, documents, agreements, international organisations)

Working Groups on water-related problems: (Water and the UN) (Official homepage of the Global Water Partnership. Mainly information on conferences, documents etc.) (World Commission on Dams) (Water-related activities of the World Bank)

Indigenous People and water: (Unfortunately dated December 2001)

Switzerland-related links: (United water authorities of Switzerland)

Water News: (Water News) (Links to current contributions / news articles / statements to water) (Short description of the projects of IUCN (World Conservation Union) around the world)

Privatisation of Water: (Reports and data on privatisation of water) (Article: Privatization: Making matters worse)

Humid areas: (Links to various pages on wetlands/human areas) (Homepage of the “Ramsar”-Convention to humid areas, very informative)