“Globally, at least 2 billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with faeces. Three billion peoples have no access to hand-washing facilities at home. A particularly terrifying statistic is that over 20% of health care facilities in least developed countries have no water service, no sanitation service and no waste management service.” Dina Lupin Townsend
Amidst COVID-19, a lot of conversation goes into analysis of systemic oppression intersecting with the current health crisis, like we noted in our article on austerity politics in Netherlands and Our System is Shaking. We now want to pause for a moment and reflect on the ongoing fight to protect the waterways. Water is a necessity for both hydration and hygiene. Water is who we are, as it makes up 60% of our human body mass (our hearts are 73%water). But water is also a political field riddled with violence and inequality, as control over aquifers can trigger conflict and dispossession of local communities. In this article, we will outline the struggles of Native water defenders whose health is endangered from various angles. In a follow up article this week we share reflections on solidarity support for Indigenous water protectors in Canada against Coastal Gaslink pipeline; a project that serves LNG Canada that Shell has its investments in. But first, let’s begin by looking at water as a lens for climate justice.
Water injustice in a nutshell
Control over water basins, water pollution and water scarcity have played a central part in hundreds of conflicts in the last decade alone (list). From the Indus river basin conflict between nationstates to local fights over toxic water and racism in Flint Michigan; water triggers conflict. Indigenous communities often see corporate entities both grabbing water and also get impacted by companies dumping toxic waste on their land and water basins. Another vulnerable group that experiences lack of access to clean water is people in prisons for example in the US or Egypt. Then there are refugee camps and detention centers facing water problems. Here in the Netherlands, university professor Daphina Misiedjan reminds us that between 2015 and 2017 there were 20.000 households cut off from water, amongst them families with kids.
It is interesting to note that water is not a part of the universal declaration of human rights of 1948. In an interview for the documentary FEEDING THE WORLD (2005) Nestlé CEO stated that NGOs who claim that water is a public right (a human right) had “an extreme opinion”. It was only in 2010 that the UN adopted a resolution (64/292) stating that water is indeed a human right. In the last decade, there hasn’t been an undoing of corporate watergrabbing, or a decisive effort to get justice for poor communities that have been deprived access to potable water. If anything, escalation of neoliberal politics facilitated further appropriations of groundwater.
In 2019 the UN climate summit was moved from Chile to Spain because of sustained protest with over a million people out on the streets of Santiago. The chants were a mix of articulations against neoliberal impoverishment and 500 years of colonial rule as well as crowds chanting: “Wake up, they are robbing our water”. Mining and agriculture multinationals are being privileged over the rest of the population when it comes to water.
Now with COVID19 Greenpeace Chile reports that 350.000 people in the country do not have access to clean water. This water inequality is apparent in many countries throughout the world. While many people are still able to adapt to changes in climate so far, one can not adapt to being without water. Of course, the story of climate disruption and water scarcity intersect, and it is important to the climate movement to pay attention to this urgent struggle. After all, every year 3.4 million people die due to water related disease according to the World Health Organization. People who face water related crises often face multiple forms of systemic inequality.
Waterprotectors and colonization
Pandemics have been political for colonized people in the Americas and beyond for a long time. In march different memes are shared on timelines of Indigenous environmental activists in North America referencing their historical memory of pandemic trauma.
Smallpox rings a particular bell of biowarfare waged by Europeans on Indigenous peoples in order to create so-called lebensraum. The disease was already weaponized in the 16th and 17th century and this biological weapon served the European colonial forces in the ‘French and Indian wars’. Major General Jeffery Amherst is documented to favor using germ warfare. He wrote: “Could it not be contrived to send the smallpox among those Disaffected Tribes of Indians? We must on this occasion use every strategem in our power to reduce them”. Amherst then gave orders “to bring them [Indigenous Pontiacs and alies] to a proper subjection” until “there was not an Indian Settlement within a thousand miles of our country”. We now know that the total war waged on natives claimed 90% of the population of the Americas. A death toll that is currently estimated around 100 million.
How does that memory live with Indigenous people today? Indigenous activists in Canada referred in their social media the haunting politics of the 21st century during the last epidemic. In 2009 when the swine flu (H1N1) outbreak took place, Health Canada sent body bags to Aboriginal communities in Manitoba instead of medicine. It shows that after all those years not much has changed when it comes to colonial states and their hostile approach towards Indigenous people. When you know the pattern, you cannot be surprised that COVID19 disproportionately impacts Indigenous peoples around the world. The very people who protect 80% of all remaining biodiversity on their land and uphold a practice of protecting homeland and water, are not granted the right to self isolate on the land.
When you look at patterns of the arrogant and irresponsible behavior of colonial powers you may be shocked but not surprised that fundamental Christians are set to fly out to isolated Indigenous groups in the Amazon to convert them amidst the COVID-19 crisis,threatening their health with possible spread or that Israel is bulldozing an emergency hospital clinic in Jordan Valley (Palestine) amidst the COVID-19 crisis. In this light, we have to see that crises in general–and pandemics in particular–serve colonial politics agendas to advance expropriation, exploitation and desperation of the ones already oppressed.
Wet’suwet’en water protectors facing a triple crisis
“The Coastal GasLink pipeline is a key component of a $40-billion LNG Canada export terminal at Kitimat, B.C.[…] The LNG export terminal is backed by one of the world’s largest energy companies and three state-owned firms owned by Korea, China and Malaysia. In 2011, Shell, which owns a 40 per cent share of the project, issued a tender to build a pipeline to feed the terminal, which was won by a subsidiary of TC Energy Corp — then known as TransCanada — which created Coastal GasLink.”
- Chantelle Bellrichard, Jorge Barrera CBC News
Over the past few months, people in the climate movement in Europe have tuned into the struggle of Indigenous water protectors in Canada whose livelihood is being threatened by the fossil fuel industry, as they struggle to protect their sovereign land, air and water from toxic business. Whilst this particular struggle has been ongoing for almost a decade, it gained a wave of international solidarity in January after fourteen water protectors were traumatically arrested on their own land by colonial Canadian forces. The spirit of resistance grew even stronger with rail blockades and solidarity protests across Canada gaining momentum and collective strength against this 6.6 billion dollar project. Then enters COVID19. Now there is not only the fight against fossil fuel corporate assault and the colonial state with a set up legal structure that favors colonial rule and the expropriation of native nations… now the third crisis manifests in the form of a pandemic. And who threatens to bring the disease to the doorstep? Pipeline construction workers.
Washing your hands…
Everytime we wash our hands it would be good to ask ourselves how our current climate activism may meet the call for solidarity of people living on the frontlines where invasive business – invasive labour – threaten the health of Indigenous people by importing COVID-19 into remote Indigenous communities and threaten the water with toxic extractive business.
Closing with a poem to remember while washing your hands:
Everytime when you wash your hands
Give praise to earth defenders, give thanks
Mni wiconi, jallalla, ancestors
chi miigwech all N.D.N. protectors
End grabbing, spilling, abuse of aquifers
Help us all to pass through troubled waters
Everytime when you wash your hands
Remember all relations, give thanks
This article will be followed up with a closer look at the Wet’suwet’en demand for pipeline construction work to stop. Invasive labor threatens their health and right to self-isolate.