Water and well-being: challenges of the capability approach to dialogue with indigenous cultures

Hasbun, Julio Octavio (2019). 'Water and well-being: challenges of the capability approach to dialogue with indigenous cultures' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA 2019, London, UK.


Regarding water, the sustainable development Agenda Post 2015 points to an abstract and a concrete goal. The first (SDG3) “Ensuring healthy lives and promoting the well-being at all ages is essential to sustainable development”, and the second (SDG6), “Ensure access to water and sanitation for all”, do not elaborate on the cultural variables associated with their compliance. The cultural diversity of indigenous peoples, usually characterized by be minorities marginalized within their countries, stresses these agreements, because their understanding of wellbeing, associated with being part of nature and environment, does not fit with the parameters established technically, from the hegemonic paradigm.

The capability approach is based on that we should pay attention to the kinds of lives people live, and to whether people are able to live the kinds of lives they value. Therefore, this Panel proposes to explore cultural practices that are valued from three contexts of global South, associated with the relationship between indigenous people and water: New Zealand, Chile and India.

The first paper analyzes the challenge of understanding the Whanganui River as a living being poses to the capability approach, the first river to officially receive the status of a legal person, in Aoteroa/New Zealand (2017). In so doing, this presentation deals with the question about how the ethical individualism it would have to be modified in order to incorporate intrinsic values. Being a person, it is no longer a substitutable resource which is secondary to the value of freedom, but intrinsically valuable. Making use of Robeyns’s modular view of the capability approach shows to what extent the capability approach would have to be modified in order to accommodate nature as an intrinsic value. While ethical individualism could be retained at the level of human beings and their relationships with one another, additional principles would have to be introduced once the River is affected. Then, discusses a set of normative principles which can arbitrate between the interests of human beings and the River. These principles will not be based on a liberal understanding of nature as a resource, but on a relational view of the River as an equal partner in a reciprocal relationship of mutual obligations.

The second paper places our attention on the process of search safe water for women in India. Women suffer more than others for many reasons such as in traversing long distance to fetch safe water leaving no quality time for them; accessing improper sanitation; being more prone to water-borne diseases such as Trachoma. Search of safe water, consequently, leaves the group of women with two choices: certain death without water or possible death from illness. Beyond the risk of disease and death, scarcity of water affects women’s emotional and mental health in India. While inadequate sanitation puts women at greater risk of experiencing social stigma, emotional distress, and mental ill-health, scarcity of water also puts women at greater risk of abuse from family members. This disparate impact has contributed to health inequities by failing to prevent the avoidable health impacts of water shortage and waterborne disease on groups of women in India. However, background policy discussions in India, have kept on focusing on the presence of waterborne diseases, including needs and aspirations of women in water policy, per capita availability of safe water, percentage of population living below the threshold of availability of safe water without overtly considering the fact of disparate impact of water on the health of the women in the country. This oversight, the paper claims, contributes to and potentially enhances health inequities.

The third paper builds on the foundation of the previous paper by exploring the dynamics of water governance in Quemchi/Chile, an island characterized by geographical isolation, low population density, poverty and climate change, that affect both the quality and continuity of water service, disturbing rural communities in general, and especially indigenous people. Following the perspective of the Health Capability Approach, the question arises as to how to exercise the principle of agency from the indigenous in the administration of water, given the financial, political and geographical constraints that threaten the health and autonomy of these communities. This view considers that health directly affects the ability to exercise the agency, in turn the agency also influences health, which has implications for policies, such as the fact that health care is not the only determinant of health, especially when we refer to cultural minorities, as indigenous peoples. The above is key since the understanding that we have of the notions of agency and health are fundamental to comprehend what people value; in this sense, the paper argues that the CA has a bias focused on human liberties from a perspective that does not consider it as a fundamental part of nature, as occurs with indigenous people. As a result, indigenous families are more affected, because emergency policies only consider water for human consumption, without taking into account their close relationship with their animals and crops.

Our Panel observes the relationship of the capability approach mediated by the cultural specificity of different cases of indigenous peoples in three continents, with respect to the multiple and complex interactions between water and wellbeing.

This panel explores these challenges by connecting three levels: the idea of social justice, the normative-legal frameworks, and the knowledge and practices of indigenous peoples. From this perspective the capability approach must be adapted to resist the temptation to impose a particular ontological framework on the great diversity of indigenous cultures.

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