From toxic levels of lead coursing through pipes in Flint, Michigan, to the ongoing fight for clean water raging in California’s Central Valley—where chemical waste sites have contaminated local water sources for decades—to the start of a massive protest over an oil pipeline that could poison groundwater in the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota, water was a hot-button issue throughout 2016.
I spoke with activists on the front lines of the push for clean, affordable, potable water. Here, they reflect on 2016 and their hopes for the new year.
“This has been a people-powered movement since day one”
We’ve been working in crisis mode this entire time. We’ve been just taking water to people, getting filters to people, and trying to get the facts out. What we’re doing is building up a whole organization of residents. We’re pulling more people now that we can see the bigger picture and what the fight is, instead of [thinking], ‘Oh my God, we’re poisoned, we’re sick, we have to help each other.’
Now, instead of trying to get the word out that the water is poisoned, we’re like: ‘Ok, we know that the water is poisoned and they’re fighting us on the only fix, which is replacing the infrastructure. Now we’re gonna educate more people and organize in a true fashion.’ We’re going to go door-to-door and bring people into the fight. They can ignore a few pockets of us here and there, but they’re not going to be able to ignore this entire city standing together. I just want people in other cities to know that this has been a people-powered movement from day one and it’s going to continue to be that way.
It doesn’t matter what your background is. You can force change. That’s the one thing I want to teach my kids: When something is wrong, you don’t have to sit back and take it because it’s the government or some large corporation that you’re up against. It’s going to be a hard fight, but people have power and can make change. The biggest thing that I’ve noticed is that utilities, governments, whoever you’re working against, they want to see people divided. So there are people put into place to break up movements. I learned that through history, but also [from] talking to people who have been there before.
I had no science background. So, oh my God, did I have to learn water chemistry and science—but the more you learn, the harder it is to fight against you because an educated public is a scary and tough one. So that’s a huge thing for becoming an activist: Get educated in your cause so that way they can’t say that you’re just being emotional. Especially as a woman they’ll say, ‘Oh, you’re just being emotional. You’re just being a mom.’ So then I’ll just start nailing them with science, like, yeah I’m a mom—but guess what? I’m hitting you with facts and showing you that you’re wrong. (Melissa Mays, Water You Fighting For, Flint, Michigan)
“When you get going, you just get caught up and try to do it better and better”
We started handing out water on a consistent basis in September 2014. We’ve been doing it a while and we evolved to the point where you’re doing something and then you can see how it can be a little bit better.
We started going door-to-door [with water donations]. Then we realized the need for recycling. With this many water bottles being used daily, we would trade one disaster for another with our landfills being filled with water bottles. So in February, we got a 22-foot dumpster [to fill with recyclable bottles]. When you get going, you just get caught up and try to do it better and better, but I’m really looking forward to being able to slow down once the state takes over and fulfills the court order [mandating that it take water] door-to-door.
We have hubs now around the city where people can go and get water, but you got your seniors, you got your wheelchair users, you got people without a vehicle—you got a lot of people who don’t have access to go to the water sites to pick up water so you really do need it to be door-to-door. (Bobby Jackson, Mission of Hope, Flint, Michigan)
“By protecting the water, we protect life”
I am not an activist. I am a grandmother who stood up. Because I live and grew up on the Cannonball River and the mouth of the Missouri River, I know my rivers and I know my water. We must protect the water at all costs. The water is an obligation of the females to protect because water is female, because through water we bring life into this world.
I have been on the ground for eight months, 28 days. I established Sacred Stone camp on April 1. We started off with about three people, and then it grew to 15 or 20. By July, we were in the thousands. By Labor Day weekend, we were 11,000 on the ground. By Thanksgiving, we were 15,000 on the ground. The world has come to stand with Standing Rock to protect the water.
Now as 2017 is upon us, all of these individuals who came to stand with us have gone to different parts of the United States and the world to protect their own water. When injustice happens people stand up, and this is injustice.
Every human being has the right to access to clean, potable water. That is why it’s in the forefront. It’s time. It’s time for the world to stand up. By protecting the water, we protect life. I will be opening a village [in 2017] to teach people how to be totally wind power, solar power, hydropower [reliant] and to teach people how to live with the earth again, how to respect the earth. (LaDonna Bravebull Allard, enrolled member of Standing Rock Sioux tribe and closest landowner to the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline)
“If the rest of the country has no idea, it’s not really going to help”
I live in Southern Maryland and I haven’t been able to get to Sacred Stone, but I have been doing local activism. Me and a friend organized an event in Fredericksburg and informed people of what was happening and we made packets of information about NoDAPL and resources that people could use to support the fight. We weren’t met with a lot of friendly people. People were looking at us like they were offended just for us standing there and holding signs about it, but we did meet some people who were interested and asked questions. I’ve also been attending rallies in Washington, D.C.
I would like to be there [in Standing Rock]. It almost makes me feel helpless at times, but there need to be people raising awareness to what’s happening all over the country. You can have everyone in one area, but if the rest of the country has no idea, it’s not really going to help. From my experience with the events I organized, people didn’t know what was going on at all.
It felt empowering to me to be able to advocate for [Standing Rock] and bring awareness, because water crises are happening all over the country—in Flint and on other reservations. I also see it as a very symbolic message for Native people, because we’ve been so erased up until this point. Resistance has been ongoing but I really feel like Dakota Access brought visibility to indigenous issues. The fact that indigenous people came from all over the world to North Dakota, that’s huge to me.
I would like to take up the challenge brought by water protectors who asked people to be more involved in our local communities. This is about questioning our relationship—not only to each other, but to the land that’s being exploited. More mindfulness towards the land, the water, the resources, will mean more mindfulness when it comes to building relationships with each other. (Danielle Miller, contributor to The Last Real Indians)
“If we leave without fixing the problem, there will still be people suffering”
We have children who are afraid to brush their teeth with tap water and people who are struggling because they’re not able to cook with it. And people say, ‘Why don’t you leave? Why don’t you get out of there? You’re stupid for staying there.’ But if we leave without fixing the problem, then there will still be people suffering, and that’s not right. It’s a lot scarier than a lot of people realize.
I know communities in the Central Valley that have to wait daily for a truck of water to be taken to their homes so that they can take a shower, or where wells have dried completely. No matter what the state says about our water levels being within the threshold of what’s considered safe for arsenic, I know that no level of arsenic is safe. It just means that it’s under what the government has said is the limit.
I think people need to continue to educate themselves and let other people know. If it’s happening here, it could be happening in other communities that don’t even realize they have a problem. These years and years of campaigning and talking to [government officials] and sometimes being a thorn in their side, as long as we keep that up, we’ll eventually see that water plant and that will be a really good day in our community. (Maricela Mares Alatorre, GreenAction, San Joaquin Valley, California)
“Information about water quality needs to be accessible and understandable”
Looks can be deceiving. Many of the contaminants California communities are dealing with are colorless, odorless, and tasteless. Water polluted with nitrates, arsenic, and pesticides looks, smells, and tastes safe, but drinking contaminated water can cause nausea, miscarriages, and cancer.
Seeing other communities organizing around the right to safe and affordable water makes us feel connected to a larger water justice movement. We have been fighting for access to this basic human right for over a decade, and many community partners have been fighting for decades before that. It has definitely helped to have more awareness nationally and politically around this issue, but we have a long way to go. [In 2016] we helped put 678 East Porterville homes on track to receive safe, reliable water after many residents in this low-income, unincorporated community had gone more than three years without this basic human right.
Information about water quality needs to be accessible and understandable. Too many families are receiving conflicting or confusing notices. In some communities, basic health warnings are not even translated into the languages spoken by significant parts of the community. We also need to establish protective drinking water standards and require testing for the chemicals we know have contaminated too many of our drinking water sources. That is a basic function of government. For too long government agencies have been allowing chemicals to be applied to land without establishing protections for the drinking water sources.
1,2,3-TCP is an example of this. It took significant community advocacy to make this a priority and finally get regulators to start the process of establishing a drinking water limit. In California, we have succeeded in getting the state to create a Human Right to Water Indicator that is being launched in early 2017 to [highlight] which communities lack access to safe drinking water in our state. That is an important first step to being able to direct resources and action to ensure all communities have access to this basic right. (Jenny Rempel, Community Water Center, Central Valley, California)