Amplifying the Unheard: A Reflection on Water Rights, Indigenous and Local Knowledge, and Gender Equality at the 10th World Water Forum

Climate Justice

Amplifying the Unheard: A Reflection on Water Rights, Indigenous and Local Knowledge, and Gender Equality at the 10th World Water Forum

Arti Indallah Tjakranegara, Fadilla D. Putri, Nisrina Nadhifah Rahman

Water is part of basic human rights which are universal, inalienable, indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated. However, many people still lack access to clean water and sanitation, perpetuating inequalities and compromising the health and well-being of communities worldwide. Globally, around 1 in 4 people around the world lack safely managed drinking water, and nearly half of the global population lack safe sanitation (WHO, UNICEF, 2021).

David R. Boyd, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights related to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, highlighted in his report[1] that water inequality and crises severely impact the realization of human rights. While some people and communities struggle to survive on a few liters of water per day, businesses and individuals in affluent countries consume vast amounts of water. This disparity underscores the injustice faced by vulnerable and marginalized groups, who have limited access to these vital resources compared to those with almost unlimited privileges.

The same report also documented the experiences of environmental human rights defenders who faced violence, intimidation, or criminalization for their courageous efforts to protect water. This underscores that the right to water, as part of economic, social, and cultural rights, is inseparable from civil and political rights. Therefore, water management should be under the control of the public and managed under democratic systems and societies.[2]

Water and climate change are also inseparably linked. Climate change affects unpredictable rainfall patterns, rising sea levels, droughts, and floods (UN Water, 2024)[3]. It will lead to more disasters where water-related disasters have dominated over the past 50 years and account for 70% of all deaths related to natural disasters[4]. This also influences food security, agriculture, energy, and the ecosystem. For instance, more floods will pick up contaminants like fertilizer from the agriculture sector on the way and pollute the water supply. In addition, water is needed in crop irrigation, food processing, and agricultural production[5]. Water is needed in the production of many types of energy such as hydropower plants, but energy also is used in water supply systems. Therefore, the nexus approach is needed in the decision-making process.

However, Annika Schlemm, Doctoral Student on forecasting trade-offs between the food-energy-water-environment nexus and opportunities for adaptation to climate change at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, shared her research during 10th World Water Forum: ”Most of the water, energy, food, ecology (WEFE) tools developed without considerations of stakeholders at the local level. Thus, they need to be coupled with human-environmental systems for effective interdisciplinary WEFE solutions”.

Therefore, adequate sustainable water management is needed. UN Water declares that sustainable water management helps society adapt to climate change by building resilience, protecting health and saving lives.

Indigenous and Local Knowledge on Water Management

In 2017, the High-Level Panel on Water recognized in the Bellagio Principles on Valuing Water that water has multiple values where “there are deep interconnections between human needs, economic well-being, spirituality and the sustainability of freshwater ecosystems that must be considered by all parties”.

Quoted from Umbu Tri during Humanis’ session at 10th World Water Forum titled Rights, Resilience and Representation: ILK on Water Management amidst Climate Crisis, Marapu community in East Sumba even believes that all forms of natural resources, such as water, are the heart of community life and the source of all life on Earth”. Furthermore, sharing from Fu Caiwu, head of the National Institute of Cultural Development at Wuhan University, Hubei province stated that “in China especially Yangtsze culture, there are ‘Gods’ in almost every lake and ocean, creating an inseparable connection of water-God worship as spiritual order”.

 Photo 1. Marapu Indigenous Community in East Sumba, East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia (Umbu Tri)

 Unfortunately, these days, the interests of indigenous, local and traditional communities are often being overlooked. Indigenous communities are losing their territories and natural resources along with the spiritual and emotional connection to nature and the environment.[6]

On many occasions, the knowledge and experience of indigenous, local, and traditional communities regarding water and other climate-related matters have only been recognized in the aspects of conservation and heritagization. Their level of involvement also remains within the framework of representation, or mere ‘tokenism’. This is very detrimental considering that they are at the forefront of those most affected by environmental crises, including those water-related crises and disasters. They also face significant challenges in obtaining compensation for the destruction of natural resources and the denial of their right to access to these resources.

It is essential to not only consider and romanticize the knowledge and practices of indigenous, traditional, and local communities but also their aspirations to challenge the status quo and address structural barriers. Structural analysis and advocacy for change must begin by recognizing and protecting these communities as human beings, not objects of tourism. This approach allows them to continue developing their climate change adaptation and resilience while also safeguarding them from industrial developments that often violate their rights.

During Humanis’ session at the 10th World Water Forum, Sheilla Funubo from Solomon Island National University stated: “By relying on the role, actions, and resilience of indigenous, traditional, and local communities, we can leverage past knowledge to predict future impacts from increasing climate hazards”. Recognizing and nurturing these roles and actions creates hope that co-creation processes on water-related initiatives between policymakers and communities can occur in a meaningful, inclusive, participatory, and sustainable manner.

Women’s Roles, Reproductive Health, and Challenges of Accessing Clean Water amidst Climate Crisis

Climate change is increasingly accelerating the severity of water quality and the vulnerability of communities, especially women, to access clean water. Anita, a resident of Timbulsloko, a floating village on the northern coast of Central Java shared how her village began submerging since 2017 due to increasingly higher tidal floods that inundated their fields and rice paddies – their main sources of livelihood.

Photo 2. Anita from Timbulsloko Village, Central Java, Indonesia presents her story during Humanis‘ session at 10th World Water Forum, 23 May 2024 (Arti Indallah Tjakranegara)

Anita’s family, who were formerly farmers, had to change their way of life as the fields that provided their income no longer existed. Her husband now works as a small-scale fisher and shrimp farmer, while Anita sells their catch at a neighboring market. Accessing clean water has become a daily struggle. Since the water is muddled with seawater, it becomes salty and is unsafe for consumption.

A water filtration pump was installed in the village, as a grant from a nearby university. However, during dry spells with no rainfall, villagers are forced to purchase water gallons at IDR 5,000 each. For washing and cleaning, another pump installed by Greenpeace in 2023, but it has experienced breakdowns on several occasions.

The village’s isolation worsens during floods, as the main road accessible only to motorcycles and pedestrians becomes submerged. In such cases, the only way in or out is by small wooden boat, costing IDR 10,000 per trip. The situation also has impacts on her daughter. There is no suitable play area for Anita’s six-year-old daughter. “She can’t find a proper place to play. Even she cannot ride a bike because there is no place to learn,” she admitted.

Another harrowing story emerged from a resident of Sidoarjo, a district in East Java, whose village has been submerged due to the infamous Lumpur Lapindo mud floods. The devastating situation, which has persisted since 2006, underlines how human activities that disregard environmental consequences can exacerbate the effects of climate change. In this case, the catastrophic mud eruption, triggered by drilling activities, has inundated entire communities, forcing residents to abandon their homes and livelihoods. This situation makes it especially difficult for women to access clean water, whether for consumption, reproductive health, or carrying out household chores.

Moving to the Solomon Islands, Sheilla Funubo explained similar challenges. The Solomon Islands consist of nearly 1,000 islands, and is home to over 600,000 people, with 80% residing in rural areas and the majority living in remote communities. The remoteness of many villages makes it logistically challenging to establish reliable water infrastructure and distribution systems. Sheilla explained that they experienced a high failure rate of community piped water systems due to difficulty planning and mitigating risks, and the absence of Water Committees. Moreover, the Solomon Islands’ vulnerability to extreme weather events, such as cyclones and flooding, further exacerbates the water scarcity crisis.

From various stories and facts above, therefore we need to amplify the voices of the unheard and continue to push for water management where water and sanitation are seen as human rights. The advocacy for public and community-based management and partnership cannot be continued without active, free, and meaningful participation of rightsholders in all water policy including the nexus with food-energy-ecosystem-climate. As Humanis, we believe that problems at the local, national and even global levels – including the issue of climate and water crisis will not be resolved if spaces for discussion and participation are restricted, denied, and manipulated.

[1] and

[2] Statement of the People’s Water Forum (2024). Accessed from

[3] Water, U. N. “Water and climate change.” The United Nations World Water Development Report (2020)

[4] Koncagül, Engin, Richard Connor, and Valentina Abete. “The United Nations World Water Development Report 2024: water for prosperity and peace; facts, figures and action examples.” (2024).

[5] N. Bieber, J.H. Ker, X. Wang, C. Triantafyllidis, K.H. van Dam, R.H.E.M. Koppelaar, N. Shah

Sustainable planning of the energy-water-food nexus using decision-making tools

Energy. Pol., 113 (2018), pp. 584-607, 10.1016/j.enpol.2017.11.037

[6] Léah Khayat & Diego Jara. (2021) An Insight into the cultural and spiritual value of water. IUCN Environmental Law Center. Accessed from: