Published on The Water Blog

Reaching the last mile in Latin America and the Caribbean: How to provide sustainable water supply and sanitation to Indigenous Peoples

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Young Wayúu girls go fetch water in La Guajira, Colombia

Extending the human right of access to water supply and sanitation (WSS) services to Indigenous Peoples represents the final step for many countries to reach universal coverage in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). As the 7th Rural Water Supply Network Forum is underway in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, we must remind ourselves what “inclusion” means in the WSS sector. Poverty levels among Indigenous Peoples are more than twice those found among other Latin Americans, and they are 10 to 25 percent less likely to have access to piped water and 26 percent less likely to have access to improved sanitation.

With dire consequences on health, productivity, and well-being, these access gaps also exemplify two shortcomings of past engagement with Indigenous Peoples in the WSS sector: Indigenous territories have often been overlooked, and, even where investments specifically target Indigenous Peoples, WSS service sustainability remains a large issue. Several barriers explain this: investors’ and service providers’ lack of understanding of Indigenous Peoples' unique social and cultural characteristics, limited engagement with Indigenous authorities and attention to their priorities and aspirations, and the remoteness and difficult access to many Indigenous communities, to name a few. More generally, we need a tailored approach that responds to these challenges through institutional development, partnership with Indigenous authorities, and local capacity building for WSS services management in order to overcome the existing system that incentivizes physical interventions in easily accessible areas with limited social accompaniment. 

To effectively and permanently close this coverage gap, Indigenous communities in LAC must be reached in ways that respect their structures and world views , foster their ownership over their systems, and in doing this, enhance WSS services sustainability.

The Toolkit “Water and Sanitation Services: Achieving Sustainable Outcomes with Indigenous Peoples in Latin America and the Caribbean” draws from field visits to 37 Indigenous communities and diverse voices in seven countries of Latin America. It provides concrete guidance, good practice examples and operational tools to guide stakeholder engagement processes, participatory strategies, and the selection and implementation of investments to promote sustainable outcomes with Indigenous Peoples along three guiding principles:

  • Respect of Indigenous Peoples’ unique and valuable world views and forms of organization through their active involvement throughout the project cycle.
  • Ownership by Indigenous Peoples over their WSS services developed through a demand-responsive approach to reflect a community’s commitment to define, implement, use and look after their WSS solutions.
  • Sustainability in the provision of WSS services through specific, institutionalized mechanisms for operation and maintenance that reflect Indigenous Peoples' customs and norms, including tailored technical assistance and active beneficiary involvement.
Changing the mindset of political leaders in order to prioritize investments and institutional efforts towards the most vulnerable, traditionally excluded, and poor communities is a long-term transformational process that requires strong leadership and targeted knowledge. We have the experiences and tools at our disposal to push for this dialogue and to make sure that, when we do engage Indigenous Peoples for WSS service provision, we work with them as partners  and leverage their traditional knowledge and cultural norms as assets. In the light of this global forum, which brings together practitioners from all over the globe, we call on fellow practitioners to join us in the fight to reach this last mile.
For more practical guidance and operational tools to promote the inclusive delivery of sustainable WSS services to Indigenous Peoples in LAC, please refer the full publication of the Toolkit “ Water and Sanitation Services: Achieving Sustainable Outcomes with Indigenous Peoples in Latin America and the Caribbean.” Also available in Spanish here.


Dianna M. Pizarro

Senior Social Development Specialist, World Bank

Miguel Vargas-Ramirez

Senior Water and Sanitation Specialist

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