Indigenous knowledge and local solutions key to successful transboundary water governance

The latest Transboundary Freshwater Security Governance online event, ‘Indigenous people in the governance of transboundary waters,’ was held on 15 September 2022. More than 80 participants from around the world took part in the interactive session to explore how to better involve indigenous people in the governance of transboundary waters.

The event, co-organised by the Global Water Partnership (GWP) and the United Nations University Institute on Comparative Regional Integration Studies (UNU-CRIS), was opened by Yumiko Yasuda, GWP’s Senior Network and Transboundary Water Cooperation Specialist, who introduced attendees to the aims of the webinar, the twelfth in a series of interactive online sessions that is now in its third year.

Nidhi Nagabhatla, Senior Fellow at UNU-CRIS, then gave an overview of the various international governance mechanisms available to facilitate indigenous participation in governance. These include the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The latter, adopted in 2007, has been particularly influential, as it has since been incorporated into national law for many countries. Despite this, Nagabhatla noted that the recognition of indigenous rights remains uneven within regions and countries around the world, and that more effort is needed to ensure their voices are heard in governance. 

Attendees then heard from Andrea Mejia Uria, a Technical Assistant at the Intergovernmental Coordinating Committee of the Countries of the La Plata Basin. She discussed her fieldwork in the land of the indigenous Tacana people of the Madre de Dios Basin, an important water source and biodiversity corridor shared between Peru and Bolivia. “We found that local organisations are very important for water governance in Tacana land,” she explained. “These organisations derive from the close relationship with nature, which gives them authority and legitimacy for local people. We can retrieve a wealth of knowledge from the Tacana’s way of life – not just about the problems they face regarding water, but the solutions they have developed.” 

These findings were complimented by a presentation from Dawn Martin-Hill, a cultural anthropologist at McMaster University and a member of the Mohawk Nation. She highlighted the continuing exclusion of indigenous peoples from efforts to clean up the waters of the Great Lakes region, despite the wealth of environmental knowledge held by nations like the Mohawk. “We should be governing our own lands and our own waters,” she said. “But, at the end of the day, we still don’t have a seat at the table. So although there is now money to clean up the Great Lakes, none of that funding is going towards indigenous people.”   

Yongabi Anchang, Director of Claretian University’s Research Centre of Excellence for the Promotion of Indigenous Knowledge and Indigenous Technology, spoke about indigenous African knowledge of water purification and water management. He noted how the partition of Africa by European powers in the late 19th century was based on geography and not ethnography, meaning that indigenous communities and their extensive knowledge of water bodies are now fractured along national and sub-national boundaries. This has given rise to transboundary conflicts regarding water use. In response, Yongabi showed that the support and promotion of indigenous practices can reduce such conflicts. “There is a need to go back to traditional ways of governance to solve water use conflicts,” he insisted. “Indigenous communities don’t fall from the sky. They evolve as part of the local environment, and in their oral traditions they preserve an incredibly detailed and rigorous knowledge of local water bodies dating back centuries.” 

The panel discussion that followed saw widespread agreement among the speakers about the need to ensure that indigenous communities are able to fully participate in transboundary water governance. The importance of co-designing water solutions with indigenous communities was highlighted as especially important. Speakers warned against the imposition of external water governance practices on indigenous communities, as doing so risks damaging existing indigenous solutions to transboundary water challenges. “Solutions must be local,” concluded Martin-Hill, “and they must observe indigenous knowledge and laws.” 

After a series of breakout rooms allowed attendees to explore these issues in more detail with the four speakers, Yasuda closed the event by inviting participants to continue their discussions at GWP’s Transboundary water knowledge exchange hub. She also encouraged those interested in the topics covered to enrol in the Transboundary Freshwater Security Governance course. Two further sessions are already planned as part of this course:

  • Session 13: The role of institutionalised cooperation in shared basins: What’s the recipe for effective basin governance? (10 October 2022). Register here.
  • Session 14: Using data in transboundary water management and negotiations (2 November 2022).