Fresh Water Matters

Lena River, Zhigansk, Russia - M Marshall August, 2014

I’m sitting in a room with large windows.  Outside fresh water tumbles by, higher on the banks of Rock Creek than usual for August.  There’s been way more snow and rain this year than is ever expected for this arid region of Montana.  Regardless of the reason and in spite of some of the local folks’ complaints, the water doesn’t miss a beat.  Constancy is its nature.

Today, Matt Damon did the ALS challenge, but instead of ice water he dumped toilet water on his head.  He did it for ALS and he did it for all the 800 million people across the globe who have NO access to clean drinking water.  Damon and his colleagues at water.org act on the clear evidence that this situation is only getting worse.

Dear friends of mine, who’ve inspired me to quite a few blogs over the years, are on their way back from Russia.  They were invited there by the indigenous people of Siberia – the people who live on the Lena River as their ancestors have for thousands of years.

Jon Waterhouse and Mary Marshall co-founded the Network of Indigenous Knowledge (NIK)  for the same reason Matt Damon and his associates established water.org – to engage in sustained action now in the interest of fresh water into the future – fresh water that people, plants, animals and more microscopic life forms than we can imagine must have to survive.  Both organizations have global reach with NIK focused in particular on building an active network of indigenous peoples living on the world’s rivers.

The original and enduring motive for NIK:  Supporting, fortifying and extending the agency these communities have for fulfilling their traditional commitments as stewards of clean water, healthy fish and wildlife now and into the future.  In land bases as far apart as the river basins of the Yukon, the Amazon, the Lena, White Nile and Yangtze, these communities all devote themselves to the health of the rivers, acting on behalf of their relatives 7 generations hence, just as their ancestors did 7 generations ago.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of Jon and Mary, these remote communities are sharing clean water strategies, technology and data.  They are engaging tools of modern science to support their fulfillment and extension of traditional indigenous knowledge – the knowledge of their ancestors, deeply held still in hearts, minds and actions.

This time last year, I was just home from time with Jon and Mary up north of the Arctic Circle observing the political process behind this preservation and application of traditional indigenous knowledge.  There the indigenous communities of the Yukon River Basin gathered, 72 strong, to reach consensus on language asserting their rights to care for the river and outlining specific and rigorous water quality standards.  In addition to the 72 governments represented at the gathering last summer, the governments of Canada and the U.S., the provinces of British Columbia and Yukon Territories, and the state of Alaska are all being asked to take enact these standards.  Clean water requires clear and wise public policy.

Last week the state of Oregon said no to the shipment of coal on the Columbia River, the fresh water source forming most of the state’s northern border.  “The state of Oregon stood up to dirty coal exports today by denying a key dock-building permit. This denial is a major victory for residents and climate activists who have waged a huge, high-profile campaign against coal exports.  Oregon’s decision today shows that our state leadership values clean air, our climate and healthy salmon runs.”

Oregon’s move sets precedent.  It is wise and decisive public policy.  The Oregon and Yukon stories reveal that the water leaders of the world are many.  But many more are needed.  Public agreements and actions in support of fresh water cannot occur too soon.

In a week filled with news of needless death and the unrest that logically stirs, public discourse seems only to mean arson – with media and public leadership (governmental, corporate, religious, social) setting and fanning fires to keep us fearful, suspicious, avoidant and tragically impaired when it comes to cooperating toward healthy families and communities – toward survival that depends, for one thing, on water.

Still, in the middle of all of this, the water flows in the Lena River and the people of that Siberian land say goodbye to their new friends.  Jon and Mary are headed back to Anchorage.  Soon to the northern Yukon and to the Amazon again.  Next year to the Yangtze.

They, together with the people of those river communities, are water leaders.  Most practically, there is really no one who relies on water who can’t be one, too.  Oregon is acting for clean water.  So is Matt Damon.

As ever, restoring and sustaining clean and accessible fresh water is up to every one of us.  The inspiration is out there and the urgency is growing.

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