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Indigenous people, water, and climate change

This policy brief was prepared following the momentous UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP25) outcome in which Parties adopted a two-year workplan for the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples’ Platform (LCIPP).


Many of the adverse effects of climate change manifest themselves as changes in water availability and quality, affecting the human rights to water, food, and sanitation. Increased climate variability will affect the availability of water, in terms of both quantity and quality, and expose already vulnerable populations and ecosystems to even greater risks. Too much water (floods and extreme weather), too little water (droughts and desertification), or too dirty water (extreme weather events can lead to contamination of fresh water) will result from climate change affecting the hydrological cycles upon which natural and human environments entirely depend. Vulnerable groups, such as indigenous peoples, especially indigenous women, and local communities are among the first to face the direct water-related consequences of climate change due to their wide-ranging reliance on natural resources and ecosystems.

Indigenous peoples manage water-related risks in a changing climate with traditional knowledge and solutions that deserve greater attention and consideration within national and global climate action arenas. Indigenous peoples’ traditional ecological knowledge is often based on a life lived in marginal and challenging environments, already implementing what could be termed as both mitigation and adaptation strategies as part of ancestral or traditional natural resources management. These strategies include traditional responses to drought or other disasters and strategies for reducing vulnerability, that have been passed on from one generation to the next.

This policy brief was prepared following the momentous UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP25) outcome in which Parties adopted a two-year workplan for the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples’ Platform (LCIPP). The adoption of the workplan recognizes the important role and contribution of indigenous peoples as partners and agents for change, equipped with traditional knowledge, customs, and solutions in mitigating and adapting to climate change. This policy brief highlights water-related insights and solutions emanating from indigenous communities in our global response to climate change.

*Download the full publication from the right hand column. The key messages from the publication are provided below. See the full text for much more detail.


This policy brief is based on a desktop study, drafted with support and input from Stockholm International Water Institute’s focal points on cross cutting issues (gender, human rights-based approach and Indigenous Peoples). It reviews international policy from an indigenous rights perspective and its impact on land and water sovereignty.

Based on the study, this policy brief on water, climate and indigenous peoples was produced in cooperation with the UNDP- Stockholm International Water Institute Water Governance Facility, highlighting the role of indigenous knowledge for climate and water solutions, and the obligations of governments to take into account indigenous peoples’ rights in mitigation and adaptation measures.

Key findings and recommendations

  • Indigenous peoples groups have, since the early 2000s, experienced increased recognition at the international level, including the groundbreaking United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007. However, translating this political recognition into concrete progress remains a great challenge (IWGIA, 2019).
  • Provide platform to indigenous peoples and involve them in relevant policy processes. National and local governments and civil society organizations should continue supporting the participation of indigenous peoples and their voices. Supporting their representation in relevant global, national, and subnational policy fora including UNFCCC platforms such as the LCIPP and the NDC processes is a good start.
  • Include and promote indigenous peoples’ knowledge and practices in climate policies. Indigenous peoples’ knowledge and experiences in water stewardship or governance should be integrated in dominant climate policies, at international, national, and local levels. This also includes bridging the gap between traditional and scientific knowledge to make contributions from indigenous peoples to climate action more visible. ​
  • Respect, protect and promote the rights of indigenous peoples. Despite the international framework, many countries have still not recognized and integrated indigenous peoples’ rights in their national legislation. National and global policymakers should respect, protect, and promote the rights of indigenous peoples to their land and water resources and self-determined development, including free prior informed consent, in climate policy and action plans (including NDCs).

Suggested citation:

Jun, J., Johansson, K., White, M., Saikia, P., Hebart-Coleman, D., & Molnar, K. (2020). Policy Brief: Indigenous people, water, and climate change.

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