World Water Day: “It’s our duty to fight for life”

As we mark World Water Day and UN representatives, civil society, and other stakeholders gather for the Water Conference in New York, we must confront a dire reality: like UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently stated, “the world is woefully off-course to achieve our goal of water and sanitation for all by 2030.”

In regions already experiencing water scarcity, which is now increasingly exacerbated by the triple-planetary crisis, corporate interests are further driving and aggravating the situation. Indeed, in 2021, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment reported that businesses are “a major contributor to water pollution, water overuse, and degradation of freshwater ecosystems […]” While often cloaked in the language of development, these projects frequently lead to human rights violations, including when free, prior, and informed consent is not given by Indigenous Peoples.

One such example can be seen in Guatemala, where Franciscans International works closely with Indigenous Q’eqchi communities, who have taken a stand against hydro-electric projects that divert their sacred rivers. Already, this has destroyed much of the plant and marine life that traditionally sustained these communities. Those demanding their right to meaningful consultation and to consent about the project have instead been criminalized and, in some cases, jailed on spurious charges.

“The  Cahabón Riveris sacred, it’s a source of food and life,” says sixteen-year-old Nikte Caal, a Q’eqchi environmental defender, who recently spoke at an event during the UN Human Rights Council about her activism and her father who was jailed for his human rights work. “It is our duty to defend the ecosystems and biodiversity and to fight for the life of our Mother Earth, to fight for our life and that of the next generations. We cannot be observers of the destruction of our environment. We must inform ourselves of what is happening and act.”

This is not an isolated phenomenon: Franciscans International has worked with communities facing similar violations in numerous countries, from Brazil to the Solomon Islands, where extractive industries and large-scale agricultural projects, amongst other sectors, deprive people of their right to water.

So how can we heed Nikte’s call?

Acting requires international efforts, including by the United Nations and its Member States. While the Water Conference is an important step, States must move beyond voluntary commitments and political declarations. The time for action and for States to fulfill their obligations under international law is long overdue. This includes implementation of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment at national level. We also call on States to negotiate on and adopt a  treaty to regulate and hold to account transnational corporations and other businesses to adequately address violations of the rights to water and to sanitation in the context of by business activities.

Accordingly, businesses should also answer Nikte’s call, including through implementing human rights and environmental due diligence. In this area, we are encouraged by some valuable initiatives, such as the development of the mega-project cycle by Leo Heller, the former UN Special Rapporteur on water and sanitation, as a tool that can help strengthen the resilience of affected communities as they claim their rights and seek to prevent the risks stemming these projects. Similarly, Pedro Arrojo, the current Special Rapporteur, has identified sustainable practices in managing water systems by Indigenous Peoples, that serve as a template for others.  

We must continue to hear from Nikte and other voices from the ground. While water is a universal necessity, it is clear that the impacts of climate change, as well as other causes of water scarcity and pollution, are inequitable. We must finally act upon “leaving no one behind.”

Events co-sponsored by Franciscans International during UN Water Conference

  • Scoping Solidarity: Societal Dialogues for Water Justice
    21 March 2023, 15:00-17:00 EST, in-person.
  • Extractives on Water and the Environment: Protecting and Accountability through a Human Rights Framework, 23 March 2023, 14:00-15:00 EST, online.
  • Hearing the Unheard: Human Rights to Water & Sanitation
    23 March 2023, 15:00-16:30 EST, online.