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Why you should care about the impending water crisis

News 22.03.2023

Water is a fundamental resource that is essential for all forms of life on our planet. Yet, according to UN reports, five billion people are expected to be affected by water crises by 2050. 

While the issue of water remains intricately linked to a heating planet, it is important to also look at the water crisis and its many shapes as a separate crisis.  While interlinked, it expands beyond the climate crisis.

On this World Water Day, we focus on the contributions of Right Livelihood Laureates who have dedicated their work to addressing these issues, exemplifying the diversity of the issue and its many solutions. 

By learning about their hard and courageous work, we can all do our part in ensuring a safer and more sustainable future. 

2005 Laureate Maude Barlow has long been a key advocate for the human right to water and sanitation. It was largely thanks to her contributions that the UN General Assembly recognised the human right to water as “essential for the full enjoyment of the right to life” in 2010. Barlow continues to assist communities struggling with water rights and speak out about the danger of “taking water for granted.” 

In 2009, the Council of Canadians, founded partly by Barlow, the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the Blue Planet Project, initiated the Blue Communities Project. The Blue Communities Projects fight for the protection of safe, clean and accessible public water around the world. The project encourages municipalities and indigenous communities to recognise that water and sanitation is a fundamental human right.

2017 Laureate Robert Bilott is a lawyer who brought to light the worldwide impact of contamination by “forever chemicals” known as polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which contaminate water and accumulate in the environment and living things. They are called “forever” as they are very persistent and last for thousands of years before they break down, making them especially dangerous.

In a legal battle lasting over two decades, Bilott represented a community of 70,000 people in Parkersburg, West Virginia, in the US, whose drinking water had been contaminated with PFAS, released by the chemical giant DuPont. Through innovative litigation, Bilott was successful in achieving one of the most significant victories for environmental law and corporate accountability to date.

During this process, he helped set up a scientific study that contributed significantly to the understanding of the global health risks associated with PFAS chemicals. It was determined that exposure to PFAS can cause severe health damage, including cancer and impaired reproductive capacity. 

Medha Patkar is an Indian activist and one of the initiators of the Save the Narmada Movement (NBA), which has mobilised people against large dam projects in India since the late 1980s.

The Narmada is India’s largest westward-flowing river. It became the subject of the largest river development project in the world, the Narmada Valley Project, which envisaged the construction of 30 large and hundreds of small dams affecting millions of people, causing immense ecological damage through the inundation of forests and displacing about a million inhabitants. 

In place of the dams, NBA calls for an energy and water strategy based on improving dry farming technology, watershed development, small dams, lift schemes for irrigation and drinking water, as well as improved efficiency and utilisation of existing dams.

Yacouba Sawadogo, or “the man who stopped the desert,” has successfully created an almost 40-hectare forest on formerly barren and abandoned land in Burkina Faso. Today, it has more than 60 species of trees and bushes and is arguably one of the most diverse forests planted and managed by a farmer in the Sahel.

Sawadogo’s efforts to combat desertification and deforestation highlight the importance of sustainable farming practices and reforestation. As a result, tens of thousands of hectares of degraded land have been restored to productivity in Burkina Faso and Niger. 

By restoring degraded land, Sawadogo’s technique not only helps to reduce rural poverty and prevent local resource and water-related conflicts but also increases food security, improves soil fertility, and provides business opportunities for local farmers. 

Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s advocacy for the Inuit in the Arctic emphasises the intersection of resource scarcity, climate change and human rights. 

At her position at the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), she presented the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) revealing that the temperatures at the Arctic were not only rising but rising at  double the rate of the rest of the world. Her work in establishing the link between melting ice and snow and the traditional hunting practices of Inuit communities helped to bring attention to the unique challenges faced by indigenous peoples in the face of climate change. 

In 2007, Watt-Cloutier, together with Inuit hunters and elders from across Canada and Alaska, filed a petition – the first international legal action on climate change – to recognise the impacts of climate change on indigenous peoples and the Inuit’s collective rights.

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