A person cups hands out as water from an outdoor spigot pours into it.

Protecting the Water Rights of Indigenous People

Water is one of the most vital natural resources, yet access to it is not guaranteed. Two billion people across the globe lack clean drinking water at home (CDC). In the United States, two million live without running water, with race being the “strongest predictor” of water access (U.S. Water Alliance). For Indigenous people, the consequences of this disparity are dire. One of the biggest culprits behind this water crisis stems from vulnerable communities’ unprotected water rights. Water rights help to delineate who can and cannot use specific bodies of water. Sadly, water rights for communities of color get ignored and disregarded by the U.S. government and big corporations.

Historically, the United States government has stripped, ignored, and infringed on the water rights of Indigenous communities. It has permitted corporations to abuse and pollute the water supply in Black and Latine neighborhoods. We have seen this repeated failure to protect and ensure safe, drinkable water from the arsenic contamination of the water supply on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona since the 1960s to sugary drinks like soda being more accessible and affordable than water on reservations and near Native communities (Congress.govInternational Journal of Circumpolar Health). In the U.S., Native households are 19 times more likely to lack indoor plumbing than white households (U.S. Water Alliance). 


• Support or volunteer with the Navajo Water Project, an Indigenous-led community organization dedicated to increasing water access for residents of the Navajo Nation.

• Donate to the Native American Rights Fund, dedicated to improving water rights for Indigenous tribes across America.

Legislation regarding water rights has existed since the emergence of European settlers in America. In the 1800s, the federal government began confining Indigenous Americans to a fraction of their native lands in reservations (Congressional Research Services). The U.S. government often carved out the driest lands for Indigenous people to live on (GAR). Despite the legal dedication of land to Indigenous tribes, the water was not reserved for their use. European settlers would use water around the reservation, later creating an infrastructure that would block or minimize how much water reached the tribe. In 1908, the Winters v. United States case gave Indigenous communities the first law that stated they essentially had first rights to the water surrounding their reservation lands (Water Keeper). This was not properly followed. Through the 1940s, the United States government’s infrastructure projects continued to decimate the water supply near reservation lands (High Country News). And in the 1960s, cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Tucson expanded using generator technologies that diverted water away from Indigenous communities (High Country News).

In 2020, the Senate passed the Utah Navajo Water Rights Settlement Act (Salt Lake Tribune). This recognized and legitimized the Navajo Nation’s rights to 81,500 acres of water in the Colorado River Basin. However, few gains for the water rights of disadvantaged communities have occurred in the twenty-first century. Water infrastructure repair or installation in Native and Indigenous communities is seen as “infeasible” because the U.S. government labels them too expensive (L.A. Times). Many tribal communities still have legal fights with the federal government over water rights for their lands. 

Author Andrew Curley writes that “water settlements between tribes and states are a source of much of this continued underdevelopment. For Indigenous people, these settlements also represent colonial dispossession because they often suspend allocation of water rights and funding for water infrastructure until tribal leaders give in to the state’s demands” (High Country News). 

Indigenous communities in the U.S. are not alone in suffering from water rights violations. The construction of dams by the Chinese government in the Upper Mekong River Basin has negatively impacted the well-being of the Indigenous Cambodian communities who live downstream of the River Basin (International Rivers). 

Water equals life and vitality, and it is essential to reflect and re-center how much water affects our ability to survive and thrive. Take the Navajo Nation, for example. The Navajo Nation had the highest-per-capita COVID-19 infection rate across the United States (CNN). This disproportionately high rate was likely impacted by low access to clean water for proper sanitation in these communities. In the Navajo Nation, a third of all citizens lack access to running water or indoor plumbing (Urban Institute), while the average American uses almost nine gallons of water daily. The average Navajo Nation resident uses less than 10%.

Without clean water, communities suffer. The lack of water rights exuberates many other conditions that negatively hurt communities of color. Protecting water rights helps protect Indigenous communities from harmful disparities that deny them the right to a full life.

Anyone can find a way to help communities protect their water rights and increase access to clean water. If you live in a place with lots of access to water, begin to converse water. Turn off your sink while brushing your teeth. Opt for some baths instead of showers every day. Conserving water can help decrease the diversion of water from disadvantaged communities. People can look into legislation involving the water rights of Indigenous and other vulnerable communities. We all need water to live, and negative ramifications in one society will eventually catch up to others. Helping Indigenous communities protect their water rights can lead to positive changes that ensure the security and safety of clean water for us all.


• More than two million people in the U.S. live without running water.

• Unprotected water rights are a major reason for the water crisis of vulnerable communities. 

• Historically, the United States government has stripped, ignored, and infringed on the water rights of Indigenous communities.

*This piece was originally published on 3/31/21. It was updated and edited by The ARD on 11/23/22.

2400 1600 Tiffany Onyejiaka

Tiffany Onyejiaka

Tiffany Onyejiaka is a storyteller interested in educating and enlightening the world about topics ranging from Black history and culture to science and public health (and how diverse topics intersect. She is also passionate about helping to craft dynamic social justice and change in her local community. Tiffany is currently studying Environmental Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. You can follow her on twitter @TEOnyejiaka or read her writing at tiffanyonyejiaka.com.

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