Water is life’s matter and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water. Today, the availability of water for drinking and other uses is a critical problem across the world.
Lack of clean water is responsible for more deaths in the world than war. About 1 out of every 6 people living today don’t have adequate access to water. In some countries, half the population does not have access to safe drinking water, and hence is afflicted with poor health.
It’s not that the world does not possess enough water. Globally, water is available in abundance. It is just not always located where it is needed. For example, Canada has plenty of water, far more than its people need, while the Middle East and northern Africa — to name just two of many — suffer from perpetual shortages. Even within specific countries, such as Brazil, some regions are awash in fresh water while other regions, afflicted by drought, go wanting. In many instances, political and economic barriers prevent access to water even in areas where it is otherwise available.
And in some developing countries, water supplies are often contaminated by reckless dumping of toxic contaminants into the environment. Sadly, despite the seemingly abundant supplies of water in the Amazon rainforest, the indigenous peoples of the Ecuadorian Amazon have found themselves in just such a catastrophe- fighting for their rights, for their land, and for their water.
It has been 50 years since Texaco, now Chevron, began oil operations in the northeastern Ecuadorian Amazon. Since then, the impacts of their careless pump and dump oil operations have been wreaking their havoc on the Amazon and the people that have inhabited it for centuries. Abandoned oil pits litter the forest like open sores in the Earth. Billions of gallons of toxic wastewater have been dumped into rivers and streams and thousands of acres of primary forest destroyed at the hands of corporate profit. Around every corner of this once pristine land, deleterious burning gases rise like towers into the sky 24 hours-a-day.
The result...More than 30,000 indigenous peoples and impoverished farmers in the northeastern Ecuadorian Amazon are suffering a massive public health crisis, including a wave of cancers, birth defects and spontaneous miscarriages due principally to the persistence of oil-related heavy metals and toxins in the surface and groundwater. The absence of readily available clean water has contributed not only to a health crisis, but also to significant cultural loss, developmental disabilities, and economic impoverishment.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the lack of access to clean water is currently the greatest human rights violation occurring in Ecuador.
This past week, I had the great fortune to travel to the Ecuadorian Amazon, to the ancestral home of the Cofan Indians, with dear friend and colleague, Mitch Anderson. Mitch has been working with the Cofan and other indigenous tribes in the region, for many years, fighting corporate abuses and reckless destruction on their land. We had come to observe and document the completion of a clean water pilot project in the community of Cofan Dureno.
The “Clear Water Project”, as the project has been dubbed, is the first of many steps in a larger effort to provide clean water relief to the oil-ravaged rainforest. The pilot initiative will immediately provide over 150 indigenous and campesino families with access to clean water over the course of the next year. Over three years, Clear Water aims to provide sustainable clean water relief to at least 2500 indigenous and farmer families spread across 20 villages/hamlets in the contaminated areas of the Ecuadorian Amazon.
As the tanks were placed on the 36th and final catchment unit of the pilot project, we set out to Dureno for a community celebration and to see the impact for ourselves. Having just received their water tanks the day before, we stop to visit with a Cofan woman, Florienda, and her granddaughter at their home in Dureno. With the water catchment system glistening in the background, Florienda sees hope for the future. Water. It is a simple thing, yet essential. Florienda smiles and explains that the new water system is “like her father”. It will be her protector- guiding her through the remainder for her days and providing a better future for the granddaughter she now cares for. Oil contamination and illness have claimed the lives of many of her loved ones and I can’t help but feel that there is a deep sense of something long lost here. Yet, as we wave goodbye, Florienda’s smile and soft laughter are proof that there is much to be gained. There is much to hope for- and clean water is a big first step.
*In the coming years, GO plans to partner with a coalition of groups including Amazon Watch, Saving an Angel Foundation, and local community groups to help continue to bring clean water solutions to the region.