Water and the Power of Community Work

12 October 2020

“Water is a fundamental link between humans and nature, it represents how healthy our relationship with the planet is, and it is a crucial element of our lives. The UN recognized the human right to water a decade ago, yet water is increasingly becoming a scarce resource, and access is steadily being privatized.”

“Nowadays, water is stripped of its biological identity, its spirituality, and its healing power, becoming one more commodity.” So says Paula Barbeito, opening Water: A Common Good.

The panelists took us on an journey around the waters of the world, starting in the mountains of Japan, passing through the forests of India and following the rivers of the Balkans to the Kerkennah Islands of Tunisia, then to Kenya, before finally arriving in Latin America. They explained the diverse systems in place in communities around designed to protect water resources, how to use it efficiently as a community, its importance for biodiversity, and the growing problems we face in protecting this most vital resource.

The Power of Community

Tomonori Tasaki of Takachiho Town Office in the Takachiho-Shibayama Mountains of Japan, explains: “The irrigation system we use is a dynamic conservation of agricultural performance; it protects biodiversity and promotes the use of traditional knowledge to use water efficiently.” The Takachiho-Shibayama Mountainous Agriculture and Forestry System was designated as GIAHS site by the FAO in 2015, thanks to its social-sharing traditional irrigation system, part of a unique rice production area. The irrigation system was developed in the first half of the 1600s. Today, the irrigation canal networks exceed 500 kilometers in length, feeding over 1800 hectares of rice paddies.

Tasaki emphasizes the importance of working together as a community with a common goal: “This is a communal system, no single person could do this alone. We work together, we share the water, the food, but also the responsibility; for example, after a big typhoon we make sure the system is working well without any problems. We use this same spirit to work together to make our agricultural system more sustainable and efficient, as a community.”

Spirit of sharing

The spirit of sharing and working together is a ritual passed down from one generation to the next and a highlight of how indigenous communities work, as Aruna Tirkey, Indigenous Terra Madre Network member in Jharkhand, India told us: “This is the story of one man, Baba Simon Oraon. He used his local knowledge to build small check dams with local technology and materials. He started building canals and dams in 1961, talking with the community about forest conservation and water as part of a sustainable life. Now 50 communities in the Bero Block work together, and more than 500 hectares of land are irrigated with this dam system.

Simon Oraon (Photo| EPS) from New Indian Express

“More than two thirds of the land in Jharkhand is undergoing desertification, the highest among all the states in India, yet these communities work together to support each other and a system providing them food sovereignty; unifying their land holdings to allow the water conservation system to benefit them all. Baba Simon Oraon says governments should build small check dams rather than large disruptive dams that change the path and motion of rivers, affecting biodiversity, and displacing communities.  This is why we must continue to work to develop policies that take indigenous peoples knowledge into account, and recognize their value in building a more sustainable system.”

Aruna Tirkey

Hydroelectric Tsunami

Hydroelectric power is seen as one of the cleanest forms of energy, and the Balkans have seen steep hydroelectric investment in the past decade to the detriment of the local communities, as explained by Marco Ranocchiari, an Italian journalist following the privatization of water in the Balkans.

“The Balkan peninsula is the only region in Europe where small rivers are still free-flowing, and the people see them as part of their identity. Preserving them helps preserve their culture; unlike in Western-Europe, people in the Balkans have a strong connection to their rivers. Currently there are 3000 new hydroelectric plants either under construction or soon to start, and there has been a big amount of resistance and protest to stop them.

A river in the Balkans

“This is a localized movement, as the rivers and streams are small, their banks inhabited by small communities. Yet these communities are uniting in a strong movement after realizing how widely this phenomena was affecting the region. By working together they managed to garner enough attention and strength, far more than if each small group had acted alone. It is not a finished issue, but the moral of the story is the importance of acting collectively.”

Further Privatization and Pollution

The Balkans are not alone in the fight against big hydroelectric dams: in Brazil the Juruna people are suffering from the construction of the Belo Monte dam, the largest in the world. Amaury Juruna, an activist in the Indigenous Terra Madre Network and the Slow Food Youth Network networks in Brazil, explains the importance of the Xingu River: “We are the Juruna people, and Juruna means Owners of the River. We are born, we grow, and we die in the river. We have always had water, but then the water was privatized. All indigenous peoples have suffered, even though we opposed the project.

Construction of the Belo Monte dam. Photo: Wikipedia

“Everyone has turned to hydroelectric power because they believe it is a way to provide clean power. However, the machines that built the dam also damage the river and our biodiversity. We indigenous peoples see the real damage: the river is now the victim of the power plants. We no longer know how the river and the areas work because the power plants manage the water, instead of nature. Our region has been exploited for centuries, people came to take our food, our resources, and leave us with poverty and destruction.”

Community management

Privatization in the form of dams is one of the many ways to restrict access to water for rural and indigenous communities. Tumal Orto, of the Indigenous Terra Madre Network, and an elder of the Gabbra people in Kenya, explains. “Water needs to be managed from the community level, following community initiatives, because indigenous communities rely on the water for their crops and their herds. Governments should begin by building on existing community structures to avoid conflict.”

Tumal Ort’s camels in the Chalbi desert of Kenya

The Water Code in Chile

In Chile, water conflicts continue to grow due to the Water Code established in 1981. This law grants water rights to large companies for mining and agribusiness. “In Chile we have 81% of the glaciers in  Latin America. We must protect them, especially now that water is sold to the highest bidder. Chile is an extremely biodiverse country with many climatic zones and many problems. In the south, the Mapuche people fight daily to protect their forest. In the middle of the country we fight the agroindustry taking our water, and here in the north the last naturally-flowing river is dying. We must change the Water Code, because it allows multinational companies and agribusinesses to take our resources,” commented Andrea Cisterna Araya of the Bajo Huasco Slow Food Community, farmer and spokesperson of the Freirina social and environmentalist movement.

Similarly in Gran Chaco in Argentina, the indigenous communities continue to fight the allocation of water rights for monoculture crops and livestock rearing. “The water problems is one of the most serious issues for the community. We are working on projects to reintegrate water conservation and rain collection as a social management system to help the entire community,” said Horacio Daniel Duk, member of the Gran Chaco and ACDI Foundation in Argentina.

The Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina. Photo: Rodrigo Soldon

Tourism, plastic and pollution

Gonzalo Merediz, a biologist from Mexico, told us: “Pollution is the problem in Yucatan at this point. We have a huge tourism and hospitality industry creating huge amounts of pollution. This goes into the water sources and impacts the coral reefs, which continues to die. And as the coral dies, so does the ecosystem.” Gonzalo is also climate change activist in the State of Quintana Roo with the Amigos de Sian Ka’an organization. They work to educate the community and encourage the tourism industry and other industries in the region to manage water resources more efficiently.

Fragile ecosystems like coral reefs and the waters around the Kerkennah Islands in Tunisia are hit hard by pollution, but also from the results of land mismanagement and climate change, as Hafed Ben Moussa, fisherman and spokesperson for the traditional fishing Presidium of Kerkennah, explained: “Traditionally we have used the date palm to build the charfia for fishing, now people are using plastic to build fishing materials and the plastic remains in the water. Pollution and changing weather are impacting our way of life.”

Preserving these ecosystems is important not just for nature but also for people. The relationship between local communities and their habitat is strong; protecting one ensures the survival of the other.

Special thanks to all the participants.

Moderators: Paula Barbeito (morning), Liliana Vargas (afternoon)

Panelists: Tomonori Tasaki (Japan), Aruna Tirkey (India), Marco Ranocchiari (Western Balkans), Hafed Ben Moussa (Tunisia), Tumal Orto (Kenya), Amaury Juruna (Brazil), Gonzalo Merediz (Mexico), Horacio Daniel Duk (Argentina), Andrea Cisterna Araya (Chile).

by Paula Thomas, info.eventi@slowfood.it