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The right of indigenous and rural communities to water in Burundi and Brazil: a critical assessment

Updated: Nov 2, 2022

Facts and Norms Institute concludes a new report to the United Nations on the challenges faced by rural and indigenous communities in the two countries

Batwa women with traditional pottery. Source: Wikipedia, 2007.

In his "planning and vision report" to the 48th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, Mr. Pedro Arrojo Agudo, identified his objectives for the first three years of the mandate: to promote sustainable, democratic water governance in different contexts, including rural areas and indigenous peoples' lands.

In line with such aim, the Special Rapporteur decided to focus his two 2022 thematic reports on the human rights of indigenous and impoverished rural communities to water and sanitation.

In order to prepare for such reports, the Special Rapporteur initiated consultations with relevant stakeholders. In response, Facts and Norms Institute (FNI) elaborated the report “The human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation of indigenous peoples and people living in rural areas: inputs to the UN regarding Brazil and Burundi”.

A collective effort by FNI's Global Human Rights Observatory, the report was carefully prepared by researchers Juscaelle Iradukunda and Henrique Napoleão Alves, Amael Notini and Ana Clara Abrantes Simões.

Drawing from a range of sources from government, the academia and international organizations and agencies (including the World Health Organization, Unicef and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights), the report contains information on overall access to water and sanitation in Brazil and Burundi, as well as the national legal framework of the two countries, the situation of rural and indigenous communities, international cooperation and the context of human rights defenders.

Overall (and rural) access to water and sanitation

Despite a relative abundance of rainfall and water resources, Brazil is yet to guarantee access to drinking water and sanitation to the whole of its population.

Access to at least basic water increased from 94% to 98% between 2000 and 2017. In rural settings, the increase in the same period ranged from 74% to 90%. However, in 2019, 100 million people did not have access to sewage treatment, while 35 million did not have access to treated water.


Burundi is a country where rainfall is abundant; yet, the nation still faces major difficulties in ensuring access to water and sanitation to the whole of Burundian society.

Access to at least basic water in Burundi increased from 51% to 61% between 2000 and 2017. In rural settings, the increase in the same period was from 48% to 57%.

In 2020, in rural areas 60% of the population has access to clean water, while only 15% have access to sanitation. In remote rural communities, there are reports of people drinking water from puddles or rivers, or having to travel very long distances to reach the nearest build-in water point.

These are particularly concerning figures, since approximately 90% of Burundians live in rural areas.

The lack of drinkable water and sanitation is a major obstacle to the enjoyment of human rights, including the rights to life, nutrition, and health.

Furthermore, difficulties in accessing drinking water are among the primary causes of health problems among small children. The country also suffers from persistent outbreaks of diseases such as cholera.

Legal and regulatory framework

The human right to water and sanitation is derived from the right to an adequate standard of living. Brazil has signed and ratified international instruments which affirm the latter. The country also voted for General Assembly resolution 64/292 on human rights and access to safe drinking water and sanitation.

The right to water and sanitation, however, is still not explicitly recognized in the Brazilian Constitution, despite recommendations from different UN Special Rapporteurs. A proposition to amend the Constitution to expressly include the right to safe water was approved by the Senate on March 2021. The bill was pending before the House of Representatives. No relevant advancements were made after that.

The legal framework of water and sanitation-related services was severely modified in 2020. Changes were read as market-oriented, but lacking a rights-based approach towards the needs of vulnerable groups in rural and other areas. Yet, the Brazilian Supreme Court considered these changes lawful.


Burundi has subscribed to numerous international and regional instruments recognizing the human right to drinking water and sanitation. The country endorsed UN GA resolution on the human right to water and sanitation, as well as the development goals from the 2030 Agenda and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development.

There are policies and bureaucratic apparatuses which are dedicated to water and sanitation, as well as legislation such as the Water Code. However, it remains unclear whether a coherent and efficient legal and institutional framework is indeed in place. The effective enjoyment of the right to water and sanitation by the most vulnerable is still a distant goal.

The situation of rural and indigenous communities

In Brazil, traditional communities — indigenous, quilombola, among others — often face difficulties with the recognition of their land rights.

The lack of land ownership and security translates into difficulties accessing water and sanitation, as the installation of essential services is often dependent upon formal titles of property.

The federal government plays a central role in these issues. In recent times, however, federal land policies have been criticized for the virtual suspension of land allocation to the landless (the rural poor), the indigenous, the quilombolas etc.; the expansion of agribusiness, mining and energy sectors, and other private interests inside indigenous lands; and the legalization of land grabbing, especially in the Amazon.

There are instances of constant failures in the implementation of free, prior and informed consent vis-à-vis quilombola and other traditional communities in the context of development projects.

Among them, projects resulting in the poisoning of lands and waters with toxic chemicals used for the cultivation of monocrops and/or with heavy metals in water and soil and, subsequently, increasing rates of cancer in the community and deaths of young children from heavy metal poisoning, constructions of sewages polluting the rivers used by the communities, authorizations granted to mining companies to use enormous quantities of the waters from damns, without an environmental impact study or any community participation.


Burundi is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. Although nine out of ten Burundians are farmers, Burundi struggles to feed its entire population. Rural poverty is exacerbated by the lack of basic infrastructure.

The Batwa, also known as Twa, Abatwa, Ge-Sera or the Pygmies of Central Africa, are an indigenous group and the oldest recorded inhabitants of the African Great Lakes.

In Burundi, the Batwa account for approximately 1% of the population. They live in precarious conditions, under extreme poverty, without proper access to water and sanitation.

The Twa were traditional hunters. When hunting was outlawed in Burundi, they were deprived of an important aspect of their livelihood. Most Batwa are landless, very few have access to arable land and thus attempt livelihoods from forging, weaving mats and pottery.

There are also reports of the Batwa being subjected to practices of forced labour. Educational opportunities are also difficulted by the indirect costs associated with school attendance. Access to education is also difficulted by Batwa children lacking birth certificates due to lack of registration. The latter also makes it harder for the Batwa to access health services.

International cooperation

In 2020, Burundian populations were affected by the devastating effects of natural disasters, a significant increase in the return movement of Burundian refugees and the socio-economic impact of Covid-19.

These shocks, combined with the pre-existing weakness of infrastructure, basic social services, and resilience mechanisms, pushed 2.3 million people into humanitarian need in 2021. Among them, 700,000 were in acute humanitarian need, which represents an increase of 35 and 17 per cent respectively compared to 2020.

All provinces affected have severe inter-sectoral needs, including water, hygiene and sanitation, food security, health, education, and housing.

Despite decreases in the budget dedicated to water, sanitation, and hygiene from 2019/2020 to 2020/2021, there has been recent contributions to behaviour change, including good hygiene practices. In this sense, the country counts with hygiene items donated by donors mobilized by the Unicef and by innovative products provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Additionally, The last months of 2020 witnessed adjusted humanitarian aid with funding from the European Union, in assistance to schools and health centres accessing drinking water and sanitation.

Human rights defenders and activists

Published in September 2021, a Report on attacks against land and environmental defenders socumented 227 land and environmental defenders killed in 2020 in relation to a range of categories or sectors, “water & dams” among them. Brazil alone accounted for 20 of the 227 documented victims.


Burundi has experienced cyclical civil wars, which have resulted in a high sensitivity to human rights, particularly civil and political rights. Therefore, the most active organizations are those that fight for the promotion and protection of civil and political rights. Until this day, there are few organizations involved in promoting the right to drinking water and sanitation.


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