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World Water Day 2020: taking a watershed approach to climate change

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Image: KAIROS Canada

"Your watershed is your lifeboat."

In this time of climate emergency, these words by permaculturist Brock Dolman are particularly revealing. 

The theme of this year's World Water Day explores how climate change and water are inextricably linked. The impacts of climate change such as drought, floods and extreme weather events are all about water. When we place these impacts in the context of our local watersheds, we see how they impact everything from habitat, to the food we can grow, to our very livelihoods. Taking this type of "watershed approach" is what Brock Dolman and many others are advocating to address climate change. Building an understanding of our local watershed is critical for our resilience to climate change.

So how do we build an understanding of our local watershed? First, it means learning about where the water we use in our daily lives comes from and what happens to it once it leaves our homes, offices, farms, etc. In other words, understanding our own local water cycle is important. For example, does the water you drink each day come from a spring-fed lake, or underground aquifer, or other source? And when you flush the toilet, where does that water go? How is that water treated and where does it end up?

Another way to build understanding of our local watershed is by connecting with it in a physical sense. We need to interact with the bodies of water where we live. Do you know the name of the closest lake or river where you live? How often do you physically interact with it? When we swim, paddle, or take walks on a shoreline, we derive enjoyment, relaxation or renewal from that body of water. These acts are important because they help us build respect and devotion, and a willingness to protect these bodies of water that sustain our lives.   

Watersheds are drainage basins, but Dolman reminds us that we can also think about them as basins of relations too. As humans, we are interconnected with all the other species in our local watershed. Their wellbeing, as well as ours, is dependent on the health of the water. Whatever we do upstream will affect the plants, animals and humans who live downstream. But how well do we know the communities that live downstream from us?

In Canada, the impacts of mining, fracking, oil and gas exploration and other resource extraction have devastating consequences to the health of our watersheds and the Indigenous communities that depend on their wellbeing. Relationships between Indigenous peoples and settlers in Canada are broken, but in building a more responsible relationship with our local watershed we can start to rebuild our relationships with one another. Ubuntu, the Nguni Bantu term from Sub-Saharan Africa, which translates to "I am because we are," is a good philosophy to adopt when thinking of our watershed as a basin of relations. We need to act in a way that ensures everyone in our watershed thrives, especially as we face the impacts of climate change.

When we consider the state of the climate emergency today, learning about our local watershed might seem elementary. However, if watersheds are our lifeboats, our relationship with them will determine how well we will be able to adapt and transition during these uncertain times.

The concept of ubuntu also suggests that humans cannot exist in isolation -- we are at our best when we live in connection with others. Taking a watershed approach helps us understand these connections more deeply. Actions to address climate change and transition the economy toward clean energy will be informed by science but also require human-centred approaches. So, nurturing our relationship with the land and the water and rebuilding relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples are critical in our response to climate change. The health of these relationships will indicate how well we can weather the storm.

Beth Lorimer is ecological justice program coordinator at KAIROS Canada.

Image: KAIROS Canada

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