Impacts of mega-projects on the human rights to water and sanitation

- Extract from letters of allegations and other communication letters by the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to water and sanitation -

The Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, Mr. Léo Heller, submitted a thematic report on the 'impact of mega-projects on the human rights to water and sanitation' to the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly (A/74/197).

This collection of extracted information from the letters of allegations and other communication letters sent by the Special Rapporteur complements the report (see A/74/197, para. 2). The information is organized according to the following categories:

  • Water deviation or appropriation
  • Water over exploitation and depletion of water sources for drinking or domestic uses
  • Water sources pollution or contamination
  • Displacement due to mega-projects
  • Participation and access to information
  • Harassment, criminalisation, detention and killings of human rights and environmental defenders

1. Water deviation or appropriation

  • India and Nepal (30 April 2012): Concerning alleged threats to the enjoyment of the rights to food, housing, water and sanitation, and health care for several communities in Banke, Nepal as a result of annual flooding caused by the Lakshmanpur Dam and the Kalkwala Afflux Bund. According to information received, annual floods threaten more than 3,000 families of Holiya, Bethani, Mattaiya, Fattepur, Bankatti and Gangapur in the Banke district of Nepal. While some flooding in the area is a natural phenomenon, the annual flooding has been aggravated since the construction of the Lakshmanpur Dam in 1985 and, in particular the Kalkwala Afflux Bund built between 1999 and 2000 by the Government of India along the Indo-Nepali border. Reportedly, the affected communities were not consulted prior to the construction of the dam and afflux bund in question. It is alleged that no proper resettlement plan has been put in place despite the challenges the affected communities face yearly. [D]uring the flooding period communities reportedly face challenges, such as accessing clean drinking water and attending school. Also, it is reported that sanitation in local communities is problematic and access to health care is a challenge, particularly for women who are unable to reach hospitals for deliveries.

The Governments of India and Nepal responded on the 6 August 2013 and on the 20 September 2012, respectively.

  • Colombia (23 May 2013): Concerning allegations on damages caused by the dumping of sediments accumulated in the Bajo Anchicayá dam to the Afro-descendant minorities that live in the area. According to information received, such sediments caused the extinction of the fauna of the middle and lower basins of the Anchicayá River and also the contamination of the river, which was the only source of drinking water for these minorities, thus affecting access to adequate food, to drinking water and electricity. Also, concern is expressed about the fact that there is no a final judgment after more than ten years since the sediment has been dumped. […] [S]ources allege how the mud impacted in the river, affecting access to the only source of drinking water for uses personal and domestic of these communities. It is reported that, on the date of this communication, the crops continued below the level of production that they had before sediment dumping, and communities continued without access to drinking water.

The Colombian Government replied on the 13 September 2013, 30 December 2013 and 30 May 2014.

  • Argentina (17 April 2014): Concerning allegations on the lack of access to drinking water in the communities of the west of the Pampa. According to the information received, the Atuel River is drained in the State of La Pampa with the creation of the Nihuil Dam (1947) in the State of Mendoza. Since then, various initiatives have been carried out to ensure that the Atuel River meets the irrigation demands of cultivated lands. The sources also reported the breach by the State of Mendoza of the agreement signed between the two states that allows the communities of the Pampa to have drinking water for their personal and domestic uses, and so that they can develop productive activities. Sources claim that the areas of Limay Mahuida and localities downstream were salted, leaving no drinking water available. […] Populations are supposedly supplied with water in deplorable chemical and hygienic conditions; they often have to bring it in barrels from some another source in better conditions or to request it from the surrounding municipalities and carry in cargo tankers. In other cases, they have to bring it from 65 km away, or to invest a whole day to get it out of deep layers.

The Argentinian Government replied on 22 October 2015.

  • Colombia (22 December 2016): Concerning information received stating that Colombia has failed to take precautionary and corrective measures to prevent impacts on Wayúu population´s human rights in the department of La Guajira, caused by the drying up of the Ranchería River after the construction of the El Cercado Dam. According to the information received, since 2014, the indigenous Wayúu population has been suffering additional and specific impacts on the enjoyment of their human rights and, in particular, their right to water. Storage systems of water and streams that provided water to most indigenous communities in La Guajira have been dry for a while […]. These peoples do not have access to water for human consumption in a regular way […]. Also, cases of contaminated water consumption have been confirmed.  In addition, it is alleged that certain residents of La Guajira who have tried to get water from the El Cercado dam reported that the place was guarded, and they have not been allowed to access the area as it is a private property. The inhabitants of the area, generally women, girls and boys, would have had to travel long distances (up to 3 km) to access water from a well and transport water by donkey.

The Colombian Government replied on 27 February 2017.

2. Water over exploitation and depletion of water sources for drinking or domestic uses

  • India (29 June 2011): Concerning alleged forced eviction of more than 200 farmers. According to the information received, in May 2008, at least 200 farmers from Polong and Noliasahi villages in Jagatsinghpur district in Orissa state were subject to forced evictions in order to make way for a steel plant and a captive port. During the eviction, the Orissa state authorities, aided by 150 armed police force officials, reportedly destroyed betel vine crops and cultivation sheds. Following the eviction, the lands were fenced off in order to prevent the farmers from accessing them. In addition, evictions of more than 470 families living and working in the Erasama block of Jagatsinghpur District and demolition of their houses and crops had allegedly been planned. The land acquisition would reportedly affect the livelihood of local communities who depend on betel vine and cashew nut cultivation and fishing in the area. Information received also raises concerns that the planned plant will extract large quantities of water, severely impacting the drinking and agricultural water supply to four neighboring districts. Concerns have also been raised that the building of a port on the Muhana River will adversely affect the natural drainage system in the area, resulting in increased siltation in the river, water logging and increased chances of floods.

The Indian Government replied on 8 August 2012.

3. Water sources pollution or contamination

  • Armenia (3 December 2012): Concerning allegations that the development and operation of the Teghut copper-molybdenum mining project will have serious environmental, health, social, and other human rights impacts. According to information received, some 82.6% of the territory conceded to the company is forest, 357 hectares of which will be cleared, and mine exploitation would allegedly result in 500 million tons of tailings (hazardous waste) and 600 million tons of other kinds of waste, to be disposed of in the gorge of Duganadzor river. Concerns are raised that this situation, not only poses a risk to those living around the project, but also to the entire country and neighboring countries. [I]nformation received indicates that allegedly the environmental impact assessments (EIA) submitted by the company to the Government, failed to take into consideration major environmental impacts, such as the drying up of water sources and soil erosion, that serve as a precondition to the enjoyment of a wide range of human rights of the population living in the mining zone, including the human rights […] to safe drinking water. […] According to the information received, the mining activity and mining waste have a high risk of causing serious damage to the health and lives of the affected population, as it would pollute and destroy sources of drinking and irrigation water.

The Armenian Government replied on the 2 April 2013.

  • Brazil (9 January 2014): Concerning the alleged contamination and poisoning in Piquiá de Baixo, Açailândia, Maranhão State, Amazon Region, Brazil. According to information received, high levels of pollutant emissions and contaminated water released by the iron and steel industry operating in the vicinity of these communities have adversely affected their health and livelihoods resulting in increased incidence of respiratory illnesses, eye and skin maladies, and cancer. In particular, it is alleged that children died as a consequence of the pollution through contact with incandescent slag, a toxic waste product of iron and steel smelting. It is further reported that the affected communities lack access to health services and recourse despite attempts at judicial resolutions. Further information states that in 2008 the community passed a majority resolution at a public consultation to defend against the incessant air pollution, contamination of water and poor sanitation, which have allegedly impacted their living conditions as well as their lands, which in turn has affected their livelihoods and increased poverty, in violation of their right to health, and to an adequate standard of living.

The Brazilian Government replied on 5 November 2014. A follow-up communication was sent to the Government of Brazil on 24 July 2015. The Brazilian Government replied to such follow-up communication on 11 June 2018.

  • Guatemala (25 November 2015): Concerning alleged violations of several human rights of at least 12,000 people living in 14 communities in the department of El Petén, Guatemala, due to the contamination of La Pasión river, as well as allegations of restrictions in the work of human rights defenders denouncing this situation. According to the information received, since April 2015 a large quantity of dead fish has been found floating in the river. It is alleged that the death of fish in the La Pasión River is related to the presence of high levels of an organophosphorus pesticide called "malathion". The contamination of the river was the responsibility of REPSA, a palm oil company that has a plantation and a processing plant located near the tributaries of said river. It is further alleged that the La Pasión River is an essential water source for the livelihood of approximately 12,000 people in the municipality of Sayaxché. Likewise, it has been found that members of the communities use the river water to wash clothes, fish, cook, drink, bathe and for subsistence agriculture.

The Guatemalan Government replied on 14 March 2016.

  • Mexico (7 October 2016): Concerning information received in relation to the alarming levels of heavy metals in water for human consumption and irrigation in different points of the Sonora river basin, and the high risk of environmental contamination and impact on the health of the inhabitants of this basin, as well as the lack of compensation for damages by the mining company Grupo México. Independent studies on water quality have shown persistence of high levels of heavy metals in drinking water and irrigation water in different points of the Sonora river basin. Affected communities would have faced serious problems on water supply for personal and domestic use. According to the information received, the members of affected communities are still without sufficient, safe access to acceptable, accessible and affordable water and were forced to buy bottled water to meet their needs.

The Mexican Government replied on 7 December 2016. Additionally a communication was sent to Grupo Mexico on 7 October 2016. Grupo Mexico replied on 7 December 2016.

  • Peru (28 May 2018) and Switzerland (13 June 2018): Concerning information received regarding the environmental contamination and human exposure to extremely high amounts of heavy metals in the Department of Pasco. The damages would be the result of decades of mining activities in the region and that continue to this day, aggravating the situation. The water used for mining production is directly discharged into the rivers of area. For this reason, high concentrations of lead were found in all the samples, exceeding the maximum permissible limits established by World Health Organization. Some residents have used shallow wells as alternative sources. Contamination by aluminium, arsenic, lead and tin was already detected in 2009 in these alternative sources. Also in 2017, the contamination of such wells by aluminium, iron and manganese was confirmed. As a result, it has been reported that access to drinking water is practically restricted to bottled water. The cost to access water is too high considering the average income of Peruvian families.

The Swiss Government replied on 3 August 2018. Additional communications were sent to various stakeholders involved in mining activities in the Department of Pasco on the 12 June 2018 (1 | 2) and a reply was received on 22 August 2018.

  • Brazil (24 November 2015): Concerning alleged detrimental human rights impact caused by the collapse of an ore tailing waste dam in Bento Rodrigues, a sub-district of Mariana municipality in Minas Gerais state belonging to Samarco Mining S.A., a joint venture between Vale S.A. and BHP Billiton Brazil Ltda. According to the information received, 50 million cubic metres of iron ore waste washed away the entire Bento Rodrigues district of 600 inhabitants and the advancing toxic 'mud wave' continues to contaminate the soil, rivers, flora and fauna of the entire ecosystem of the region in its downstream path of 850 kilometres towards the sea. From the source of the contamination to the mouth of the sea, around 6 million people are affected by this disaster. The environmental damage to the region is said to be irreparable as the flood waters have produced a dense toxic mud that has entered the River Doce, contaminating it with very high levels of hazardous substances. All cities in the flood path have had water cuts and many residents have had to be taken to hospital for respiratory irritation and intoxication of heavy metals. 11 bodies had been found and 12 persons are still officially missing. Cities have had water cuts, since their main source is the Doce River and the water is unable to be treated for human consumption due to the large presence of suspended solids and heavy metals. Alternative sources of water have been scarce and people are queuing long lines to obtain drinking water.

Additional communications were sent BHP Billiton Ltd; Samarco Mining S.A.; and to Vale S.A which replied respectively on 10 December 2015 / 14 January 2016; 14 January 2016; and 23 December 2015.

  • Furthermore, a communication was sent to the Government of Brazil on 30 June 2016, concerning  the process and substance of the agreement that Samarco Mining S.A. and its parent companies Vale S.A. and BHP Billiton Brazil Ltda signed with the Federal Government and the State Governments of Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo on 2 March 2016, ratified by the Brazilian Federal Court of Appeal on 5 May 2016, concerning the restoration of the environment and communities affected by the collapse, on 5 November 2015, of the Fundão tailing dam in Mariana in the state of Minas Gerais, which released an estimated 62 million tons of iron ore waste into the Rio Doce. The Brazilian Government replied to such communication was on 30 August 2016 and provided an amended contract. Additionally communications were sent to the Governments of Brazil (5 September 2018) and Australia (17 October 2018) concerning the renewed agreement of 25 June 2018 that Samarco Mining S.A., Vale S.A. and Australia-based BHP Billiton signed with the Federal Government and the State Governments of Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo regarding socioeconomic and environmental reparations necessitated by the 2015 Doce River disaster.

Communications were also sent to the BHP Billiton, Vale S.A., Samarco Mining S.A., and The Renova Foundation. The Government of Brazil responded on 16 November 2018 and provided an amended contract. Moreover the Australian Government replied on 30 November 2018. Additionally The Renova Foundation submitted its replies on 18 October 2018 and 16 January 2019 ( 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 ).

  • Indonesia (6 February 2019): Concerning the alleged failure to protect against human rights abuses linked to coal mining operations in East Kalimantan Province, including violations of rights to life, to water and sanitation, to food, and to a clean and safe environment, as well as the alleged harassment and attacks against JATAM (Mining Advocacy Network), an environmental non-governmental organisation, for denouncing this situation. [D]ue to the depletion of groundwater and surface water caused by coal mining, local residents are often forced to use the contaminated water with heavy metals and low acidity from the mine pit, for washing, bathing, irrigation of crops and fish farming, and this leads to decrease in agricultural yields, fisheries yields and in food security for those whose livelihoods depend on fishing or agriculture. Allegedly, some of this contaminated water was absorbed in the water distribution system and channelled towards residential areas for household use and may seriously affect people's health and nutrition.
  • Philippines and Australia (13 February 2019): Concerning the failure of the Government of the Philippines to protect the human rights of the indigenous peoples and local communities living near Dipidio, Nueva Vizcaya Province, and the overall environmental degradation in this region, which are resulting from the exploitation of a gold and copper mine by OceanaGold Corporation, an Australia-based mining company. It is reported that the local communities rely on the Didipio river as source of drinking water and water for personal uses as well as for agriculture and irrigation purposes. Due to the contamination of the river, allegedly, the local communities were not able to access safe drinking water. The sediments of the river are heavily polluted and could negatively affect human health as well as benthic or sediment-dwelling organisms. 

A communication was also sent to OceanaGold Corporation, who responded 1|2. The Government of the Philippines responded on 15 February 2019.

4. Displacement due to mega-projects

  • India and Korea (11 June 2013): Concerning alleged forced eviction of residents living in Jagatsinghpur District, Odisha, and surrounding areas in India. According to the information received, the Government of India granted concessions to the multi-national steel corporation, Pohang Iron and Steel Corporation (POSCO), based in the Republic of Korea, for the construction of an integrated steel plant and a captive port, which could force up to 20,000 people to leave their homes and land. Sources suggest that the construction of the steel plant would result in serious violations of human rights, including the right to adequate standard of living, food, adequate housing, water and sanitation, health and education. According to reports received, the POSCO project will require the diversion of 120 billion litres of water that is currently used for domestic and agricultural purposes by residents in the affected communities. The loss of this source of water poses serious risks to the ability of families to access sufficient water for their household use and of farmers to irrigate their crops. People already displaced by the POSCO project, including the residents in the transit camp mentioned in this communication, have reportedly experienced marked declines in the quality of water that they are able to access.

The Korean Government replied on the and the 14 August 2013. An additional Communication was sent to POSCO International Corporation on 11 June 2013, which replied on the 24 January 2014. Additionally follow-up communications were sent to the Government on Korea on 27 May 2014 and to POSCO International Corporation on 30 May 2014. Replies to both communications were received on 7 August 2014 and on 25 July 2014, respectively.

  • Guatemala (10 July 2017): Concerning information received regarding displacement, threats of eviction, and destruction of housing of the entire community of Laguna Larga, in the municipality of San Andrés Petén, around 107 families, who were at the moment [of the communication] in a humanitarian emergency situation on the border with Mexico, in an improvised camp in the surroundings of the community of El Desengaño. Communities were in a humanitarian emergency situation, in an area without access to basic services, such as drinking water or sanitation, living in fragile and unprotected tents, very exposed to strong tropical rains, mosquitoes and without sufficient resources for their food or medicines.

Various replies were received from the Guatemalan Government on 11 August 2017: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 |

5. Participation and access to information

  • Bangladesh (21 December 2011): Concerning alleged negative impacts on human rights of affected communities of proposed domestic policy permitting the construction of an open-pit coal mine in the township of Phulbari. According to the information received, the open-pit mine in Phulbari, if constructed, would have a significant impact on food production and access, by destroying close to 12,000 acres of productive agricultural land, and on water access by lowering the water table 12 to 25 meters and potentially poisoning water sources. The mine would allegedly lead to the displacement of up to 220,000 people over time, 50,000 of whom are indigenous people belonging to 23 different tribal groups. Current plans reportedly do not provide for adequate compensation or resettlement and have not included consultations with affected communities. Finally, allegations have been raised regarding continued efforts to stop human rights defenders from protesting the Phulbari coal mine.

The Bangladesh Government responded on the 22 December 2011.

  • United States of America (21 September 2016): Concerning information received regarding the construction of an oil pipeline in proximity to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, planned to cross under Lake Oahe, the main source of water for the tribe and an area of cultural and spiritual significance. Potential spills and leaks to the Missouri River and tributaries would quickly affect drinking water intakes and large areas of riparian resources such as wetlands, habitat, and plant resources. The spill planning and emergency response proposed by the Army Corps does not disclose potential impacts to downstream water supplies from leaks and spills nor adequately include the water systems in emergency preparedness planning. An additional communication was sent on 11 November 2016 to the Government concerning Information received concerning the excessive use of force by state law enforcement officials, private security companies, as well as the North Dakota National Guard, in the context of protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The Government of the United States of America replied on 9 December 2016.

  • Mexico (14 August 2015): Concerning alleged impacts caused by the Independencia Aqueduct on the substantive rights of 5 indigenous communities that constitute the Yaqui People and that would be located along the Yaqui River. According to the information received, there was no adequate consultation process with the communities of the Yaqui Indigenous People in the context of the construction and operation of the aqueduct. This was affirmed in 2013 by the National Supreme Court of Justice (SCJN), which clarified that the environmental impact assessment carried out in 2011 was unsubstantiated since the authorities did not fulfil their duty to organize a free, prior and informed consultation to the Yaqui people who are directly affected by the project. After the ruling of the SCJN, in August 2013, the implementation of a process of consultation with the Yaqui people began, which according to the information received would not have complied with the international standards in the matter, more specifically the prior, free nature and informed character of the process. Furthermore, to date [of the communication] the aqueduct continues to operate, causing a serious violation their rights to water. In addition, there are allegations of criminalization of indigenous opposition to the project. Reportedly, some leaders of the Yaqui community, including Mario Luna Romero, Tomas Rojo Valencia and Fernando Jiménez Gutiérrez, were subject to arrest warrants by the State Attorney's Office, in the context of a series of threats and acts of direct harassment to discourage the indigenous opposition to the aqueduct. According to information […] the aqueduct [continues to] operate, providing a disproportionate amount [of water] to the state capital, which has other water sources within its reach, compared to the limited access to water by members of the Yaqui people, and therefore causing a serious violation of their rights to water.

An additional communication was sent to the Government of Mexico on the lack of consultation with the Yaqui Indigenous peoples in the context of the Independencia Aqueduct and the Aguaprieta Gas Pipeline on 22 November 2017.

6. Harassment, criminalisation, detention and killings of human rights and environmental defenders

  • Papua New Guinea (18 February 2014): Concerning alleged negative impact of large-scale land acquisitions under the Special Agricultural and Business Leases ('SABLs') scheme on human rights. According to the information received, large-scale land acquisitions have been granted without due respect for legal procedures and safeguards and have negatively impacted the ability of indigenous communities to maintain customary land use patterns, sustain their traditional way of living, access land and secure their rights to food and water. Reportedly, concessions for the development of customary land have been granted without consultation and consent, and there have been incidents of violence or intimidation against landowners who expressed opposition to the SABLs. According to information, villagers who had cut down trees across a road or stream to stop logging and to protect drinking water were subject to beatings with sticks, rifle butts and fan belts by the police's riot squad. Reports received suggest that business and agriculture activities also have significant impact on the quality of water sources on which indigenous villages depend for their consumption and farming. These allegations have been made where industrial oil palm plantation, requiring large volumes of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides, have developed.
  • India and the United Kingdom (29 May 2018): Concerning information received on the killing of 10 demonstrators in police fire in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu, during the protest against the extension of the Sterlite Copper Smelting Plant. We would also like to bring your attention to the alleged air pollution and groundwater contamination caused by the copper smelter plant in Tuticorin, which triggered the protest, following the announcement of the extension of the copper plant. It is reported that following a protest on 24 March 2018, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board and the Rural Development Officer conducted water quality tests. According to this test, groundwater samples from seven locations within Sterlite Copper factory premises and eight from villages around the factory revealed high level of the neurotoxin heavy metal lead, which is particularly toxic to children. The level of the metal lead was between four and 55 times higher than the level considered safe for drinking water.

The Government of the United Kingdom replied on 24 July 2018. Additional communications were sent to various stakeholders involved in the operations of the Sterlite Copper Smelting Plant: 1 | 2 | 3

  • Mexico (4 July 2018): Concerning on information received regarding the convictions of six environmental defenders for the alleged homicide of a Spanish businessman in 2003, who would have actively worked for and in defense of the right to water of the indigenous community of San Pedro Tlanixco, State of Mexico.  In 2002, the National Water Commission of Mexico (Conagua) annulled the license granted to the indigenous community of Tlanixco and handed it over to the municipality of Villa Guerrero for water use mainly for commercial uses by floriculture companies. […] [F]loriculture businessmen had the support of governmental actors and important companies, while the indigenous community of Tlanixco was not adequately consulted on the license change and uses of water. The inhabitants of Tlanixco report that as a result of this license granting their access to water has been affected, and that they run out of water for human consumption for long periods, and even for several weeks.

The Mexican Government replied on the 18 October 2018.

  • China and Cambodia (27 September 2018) – Concerning the alleged deprivation and clearance of agricultural and forest lands from at least 946 families in 25 villages of Preah Vihear Province and alleged impact on the source of their drinking water due to concession of their lands to the five Cambodian subsidiaries of a China-based sugarcane enterprise, Guangdong Hengfu Group, without consultation with affected community's members, including indigenous peoples. Information received also concerns the alleged judicial harassments suffered by some communities' members for raising their concerns in this context.

Additional communications were sent to the subsidiaries of Guangdong Hengfu Group: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 . The Chinese government responded on the 10 December.

  • Panama and Guatemala (17 December 2018): Concerning the criminalization of Mr. Bernardo Caal Xól, indigenous Q'eqchí 'leader of Santa María Cahabón in the department of Alta Verapaz, sentenced to seven years and four months in prison for illegal detention and aggravated robbery on 9 November 2018 by the 1st Judgment Court of Cobán, following a complaint filed by its subcontractor. In December 2015, Mr. Caal Xól, representing the Q'eqchi 'community of Cahabón, requested the constitutional amparo protection of before the Supreme Court of Justice against the Ministry of Energy and Mines, claiming that the construction of the dams [of the Oxec hydroelectric projects] would violate the rights of community members to life, health, the environment and ecological balance, access to water, as well as the principles of legality and consultation with indigenous peoples. It has been alleged that piping, the Oxec River, dried it in many places, that several communities can no longer use the river and that Q'eqchi 'women have to travel more distance to get the water.

Additional communications were sent to the private actors involved: 1|2|3. The Government of Panama responded on 8 March 2019.