Flowing to Freedom: Environmental Defenders Liberating Our Waters
Life without water is impossible. This simple yet vital resource has sustained all life on earth for millions of years. Our oceans, rivers, and lakes are the habitat of our rich aquatic species. For humans, it is a coveted resource to fulfill our needs. But unfortunately, only 3% of all water on earth is freshwater, and only 0.5% is extractable for safe consumption and use. Moreover, the triple planetary crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution have made it more challenging to fulfill our fundamental human right to access clean and safe water, pushing us to the brink of a water crisis of scarcity and shortage.
The issue of access to water is global as it transcends nationalities, races, and gender, encapsulating the rife social, ecological, and economic problems that persist today. The World Health Organization’s data states that 785 million people need more essential services for drinking water, and 144 million people drink untreated surface water. The United Nations says that if we maintain our current development approach, there will be catastrophic water-related social inequalities by 2030. They project that 1.6 billion will not have safe drinking water, 2.6 billion will not have access to essential sanitation services, and 1.9 billion will lack basic hand hygiene facilities. Ideally, these are damning statistics that should serve as a wake-up call to leading governments and development actors to shift their profit-oriented and power-consolidation development approach to a new one that puts people and the planet first. But unfortunately, that is not the case.
Amidst the climate crisis, hydropower is touted as a means of climate mitigation. However, large dams promote water privatization, making it more difficult for communities to access and use. Additionally, mining operations are said to solve economic stagnation after the height of the pandemic. However, these are water-intensive, thus affecting the water supply for domestic and agricultural use for surrounding communities. Above all, these projects are behind the devastating consequences that ordinary people like indigenous peoples, farmers, and fisherfolk face in protecting our land and waters.
Environmental human rights defenders strive to protect our natural environment, including our finite freshwater resources, from further pollution and degradation from these projects. For them, especially indigenous peoples, water is not just a life-sustaining resource; they have an inherent and deep connection with it because it sustains their cultural and spiritual identity. As a result, they have learned to co-exist and thrived with the environment for years. Equipped with their time-tested knowledge and capacities, they are nature’s best stewards. And to a greater extent, their advocacy helps us to fulfill our fundamental rights, including our water rights. But it comes at a cost. Their initiatives to uphold our environmental rights are often met with threats, attacks, and reprisals by corporations and/or governments that push for so-called development projects.
As we commemorate World Water Day, the Asia Pacific Network of Environment Defenders (APNED) is in solidarity with the rest of the world in appreciating, recognizing, and protecting fellow environmental human rights defenders for their valuable work and sacrifices. If governments ensure enabling environments for defenders to thrive and forward their advocacy, we can attain a better world.