Downstream Neighbors And Planetary Water Crisis

Kristi McCracken and Libby Comeaux, February 20, 2012

We came from water and we’re 70% composed of water, and so is Earth herself. Yet, clean water sources on the planet are being threatened, and some are being depleted. In order for our children and the children of other species to have access to clean water, changes must start now.

Discussion about the value of water and how lifestyle choices affect it are springing up across the country. The last weekend in January at The Downstream Neighbor water symposium in Denver, Colorado participants considered local water issues from within the deeper context of cosmic time and the broader context of Earth’s hydrologic cycle. They affirmed that, as a headwaters state, their public decisions about water had to take into account the health of the downstream neighbor.

After viewing the film, Journey of the Universe, a panel offered brief reflections. Artist Rik Sargent showed slides of his large bronze sculpture, One World One Water. Indeed a sub-theme of the symposium was how water connects us and reminds us that we are essentially one.

Maude Barlow, chair of the Council of Canadians and Board President of the Washington-based Food and Water Watch, gave the keynote. Mary Ann Coyle of the Loretto Community introduced her with the Vaclav Havel quotation,“Nothing is more powerful than an individual acting out of conscience.” Maude spent the first part of her talk detailing the crisis that is invisible to most people, as though we were all hiding behind blindfolds while sucking a bathtub dry with our separate straws. There seems to be plenty for everybody, until there isn’t enough for anybody.

Fresh water is being shipped out of its watershed in bottles. Huge cities near the ocean do not return fresh water to the land after use but rather dump it into the ocean. Industrial and mining processes like fracking permanently ruin fresh water so that it cannot be reused. Combined with climate change, these human choices accelerate desertification now rampant in 4000 Chinese cities, 22 African countries, the entire Middle East – and increasingly the American Southwest.

Maude did not leave us without hope, for as she says, “Hope is a moral imperative.” But we need to see clearly, even though as Margaret Atwood writes, “The world seen clearly is seen through tears.” We must act quickly, reversing several centuries of treating water as though it were a commodity like tennis shoes to be bought and sold on the open market. Instead, we must affirm water as a sacred commons and a public trust, affirm the human right to clean water and sanitation as recently acknowledged by the UN, and affirm that water and watersheds themselves have rights, the right to a certain natural integrity that humans have to respect.

Then we have to do the work of living up to these values and demand that our governments do so as well. South African environmental attorney Cormac Cullinan has written a beautiful book called Wild Law in which he lays out the legal path needed for humans to constrain ourselves and allow the planet to heal.

After the Gulf oil spill, people sued BP on behalf of the Gulf and its creatures, under the Ecuador constitution that acknowledges the rights of nature. In the US and most other countries, nature's rights have not yet been acknowledged in law, so only if a person has suffered economic injury can the case be heard. What would the world look like if the waters could sue to protect their own integrity? Wild Law shows how we can create the kind of world where individuals, corporations, and governments are accountable to the living ecosystems of our planetary home.

If future generations are to have clean water to drink, it is our responsibility to stop careless industries from destroying it. Multinational companies are buying the rights to pure groundwater reserves to be bottled and sold at a profit. Water should not be sold as a commodity, but rather be kept in a public trust for its own sake, for the integrity of water, and as a human right.

Indigenous people in Bolivia were insulted by the way the multinational companies divided the access to water based on whether people could pay or not. The mountain people there had always relied on the water that fell from the sky and ran toward their fields from the mountains, so they revolted when foreign companies demanded they pay for the water that was always theirs. The government listened to the indigenous voice, and the multinational companies were made to leave Bolivia.

If we take water out of the hydrological cycle, it won’t be there for our children. We don’t have that much fresh water to spare. Water conservation takes many forms globally.

One of the participants at the symposium shared how farmers in the highlands of Guatemala and Honduras are being taught how to keep the water on top of the mountains, rather than allowing the tremendous runoff that has occurred with deforestation of the land.

As a part of the ongoing Earth Healing Day celebration, the fourth Sunday from noon to 1:00 in each time zone is set aside for ceremony in honor of our planet. During the symposium this ceremony began indoors in an art gallery where participants expressed their gratitude and their prayers for water, then blessed a vase of water with many intentions and carried it to the South Platte River so these prayers and blessings could flow to the Gulf and back into the clouds and, somewhere, to Earth.

Those who gathered for an action planning session at the end of the symposium adopted a South Platte Watershed Commons approach to caring for the water that cares for us. The group will articulate an ethic of respect for water. Their plans include taking action to change the Colorado constitution to protect water from being permanently ruined from fracking.

We can honor water’s role as an originator of life in a respectful and responsible way by asking what it needs from us. The watershed defines the bioregion of a locale. Each bioregion needs to take the larger picture into account before making any local decisions. Respecting the integrity of water as a part of nature is critical.

Are you willing to be a good downstream neighbor when you see injustices arise? Will you speak up for water in your locale to ensure that the rivers keep flowing to the sea?

May our love of and appreciation for the beauty of nature including our local watershed inspire us to make wise decisions regarding our relationship with water for the benefit of the Earth’s children. May our care of water continue to flow like a gentle stream nourishing individuals and communities the world over.