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World Water Day: A Solutions-Driven Workshop on Climate Impacts on Freshwater

World Water Day: A Solutions-Driven Workshop on Climate Impacts on Freshwater

Written by Elaine Coburn, Director of the Centre for Feminist Research.

World Water Day: A Solutions-Driven Workshop on Climate Impacts on Freshwater was co-hosted by CIFAL York and the Office of the Provost, in partnership with the Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health Research, York University. The event is part of CIFAL York’s In-Focus Knowledge Exchange Series for Nature, Climate, and People curated by Idil Boran.

The convenors of the workshop were Idil Boran, Associate Professor of the Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies, CIFAL York and Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health Research, and Sapna Sharma, Associate Professor in the Department of Biology, Faculty of Science and Provostial Fellow.

The event participated in World Water Day events, which have been held around the globe since 1993.

Professor Sharma observes that today, two billion people do not have access to clean water at home, while in Canada, more than 800 communities are subject to long-term drinking water advisories. Among communities that have not had clean water for more than ten years, two-thirds are Indigenous, characteristic of the inequitable distribution of fresh water in Canada and around the world. These facts frame the discussions for the workshop, bringing together concerns about access to fresh water and inequities within and across nations during an era of climate change.

Keynote speaker Professor Orbinski, Director of the Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health Research, began with the observation that freshwater is precious. The contemporary narratives about our relationship with the natural world are inadequate, however, to the challenges we face, given shrinking freshwater supplies due to climate change and inequitable access to water. “We need a different story about how we view ourselves, how we view our relation to each other and to the biosphere,” Professor Orbinski emphasized, adding, “This demands an understanding of the complexity of the hydrosphere and more broadly the biosphere within which all human life exists.” We are now an urban population of close to eight billion people on this fragile earth. The impact of climate change and biodiversity loss is massive, making it very difficult to make accurate predictions about the consequences of these disruptions for the biosphere and human communities. We do know, however, that as climate change diminishes the access to freshwater, competition and conflict increases, as different communities struggle to secure water access for fishing, farming and other subsistence and cultural activities. To begin to address these challenges, Professor Orbinski argues, requires us to let go of tenacious ideas about human dominion over nature so that we may grasp the fundamental truth that, “We are part of nature and we depend on nature for our very being and survival.”

Professor Daniel Olago, Chair of the Department of Earth and Climate Sciences at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, spoke about the continent of Africa, which holds 25% of the world’s surface water. Despite the abundance of freshwater sources, these have been negatively impacted by human activity, including deforestation and overfishing, as well as by climate change. Biodiversity suffers with cascading consequences. Flamingo populations in Lake Nakuru are decreasing, negatively affecting tourism and the economic health of the region, while in Lake Malawi, the loss of native fish leads to hunger and malnutrition among communities dependent on healthy fish stocks. Solutions are made complex by the dozens of political jurisdictions acting in lake areas and sectoral approaches to management, leading to poor coordination in addressing systemic challenges. An Integrated Lake Basin Management approach is required, Profesor Olago argues, bringing a holistic approach that balances conservation with sustainable development goals. 

As Dr. Syed Imran Ali, Research Fellow at the Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health Research, observes, floods and droughts are the spectacular face of climate change and its devastating effects on freshwater sources. Equally important, but less noticed, are changes to the quality of the world’s water due to contamination. Inadequate sanitation always poses risks to the quality of the water supply, but these risks are experienced unequally. Worldwide, rural populations and refugees displaced due to conflict and disaster experience acute difficulties in accessing clean fresh water. The consequence is the proliferation of deadly water-borne infectious diseases, like cholera, watery diarrhoea and hepatitis E. Preventing deaths means improving water quality through chlorination at the point of consumption, where World Health Organization “universal standards” for chlorination are inadequate in many humanitarian crisis contexts. To improve water quality in refugee camps and similar contexts, Dr. Ali and his team have developed machine learning and numerical modelling tools that determine adequate levels of chlorination to ensure water remains safe. This is one example of solutions-driven research that responds to the challenge of providing clean water in crisis situations and that is now in use by seven major humanitarian organizations working around the world.

Dr. Angele Alook, Assistant Professor in Gender, Feminist and Women’s Studies and a member of the Bigstone Cree Nation in Treaty 8 territory, observes that water crises are not only outside of Canada, but affect many First Nations communities on lands claimed by the Crown. She warns:

“There is something happening beneath our feet. It will stop the rivers from flowing and the water from filling the lakes in the spring. We will lose our fish, our moose and our traditional ways of living…The water will be stolen… All Canadians should be concerned, because the hunger of the oil industry has no limits. If we contaminate waters upstream, we contaminate all water downstream and the ecosystems upon which they depend.”

If Indigenous nations have shown remarkable resilience, they have been impoverished by the colonial theft of Indigenous land and left traumatized by genocide, including the infamous residential school system that sought to extinguish Indigenous kinship and ways of knowing and doing. The oil industries step into this context, making false promises to Indigenous communities that feel they have few choices as they seek to recover the power and knowledges that colonial actors have forcibly wrested from them. Dr. Alook emphasizes that this must end now through the recovery of Indigenous sovereignty, especially taking up responsibilities towards the land: “As long as the sun shines, as long as the rivers flow, let it be the sovereignty of our people that takes precedence over the capitalist and colonial theft of our lands…This is our land, this is our water, and let us be stewards of all that the Creator has bestowed upon us.” 

Dr. Catherine Febria is Canada Research Chair of Freshwater Restoration Ecology at the University of Windsor. Dr. Febria describes the Healthy Headwaters Lab, which she directs, as seeking to “connect land, water and people for future generations” using a decolonial, community-centered interdisciplinary approach. River restoration now involves billions of dollars worldwide but moving forward demands more than money – it requires coordinated actions at every level from the most local to the global. In coordinating, Dr. Febria emphasizes, “Science matters, but so does communication if diverse communities are to be meaningfully involved in river restoration. Best practices foreground local involvement.” In Canterbury in Aotearoa/New Zealand, Māori community members, farmers and community groups came together with scientists to create healthy rivers. “The relationships come before the science” Professor Febria observes, “It’s about building trust by listening and mobilizing lived knowledge alongside science.” 

Human and environmental health depends on clean fresh water. On World Water Day 2022, these researchers came together to emphasize the importance of holistic approaches that take up science in collaboration with those most immediately affected by the contamination of freshwater sites, including Indigenous and other communities marginalized from power and decision-making. New ways of doing science with diverse knowledge holders and new/old ways of understanding human relationships within the natural world are necessary, they emphasize, for freshwater to be restored and for the flourishing of all life in generations to come.