Guest Blog – Big Rivers, Big Ideas at River Rally 2014

Patrick J. Lynch

Guest Blog by Patrick J. Lynch, the International Director for the Futaleufú Riverkeeper, based in Chilean Patagonia.

His Holiness Gyalwang Drukpa with Margarita Diaz, Tijuana Waterkeeper and 2014 River Hero.
His Holiness Gyalwang Drukpa with Margarita Diaz, Tijuana Waterkeeper and 2014 River Hero.
Photo by John L. Wathen

Pittsburgh, PA. I’m writing from the annual River Rally conference, hosted jointly by Waterkeeper Alliance and River Network. This year we’ve met at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, the birthplace of the Ohio River. In addition to several hundred US attendees, more than 50 of us have traveled from all over the world to share stories about our work and unite around the simple and wonderful idea that all communities deserve clean water and healthy rivers.

Just counting those who came from Latin America this year, we’re representing 33 organizations across 11 countries. I am representing the Futaleufú Riverkeeper in Chile, Patagonia’s first Waterkeeper program. The Waterkeeper Alliance movement may have been born on the Hudson River in the US but its membership becomes more global every year. The newest Latin American Waterkeeper organization welcomed this year was started by Jeanette Noack, an attorney from Guatemala City who works with the Alianza de Derecho Ambiental y Agua (ADA2) and the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW). Jeanette has over a decade of experience as an environmental attorney in Guatemala and throughout Central America.

There are several people working on water issues further afield. Take for example Nabil Musa, our Iraq Upper Tigris Waterkeeper in Kurdistan, who traveled from Iraq after completing a first descent on the Choman-Rawanduz River with support from the American Canoe Association’s Dave Burden. Nabil is an artist and performer who lived in exile before deciding that coming back home and helping communities clean up their rivers was his calling.

Then there’s Ranjan Panda, a new Waterkeeper and a vocal advocate working to protect India’s Mahanadi River in the Odisha state. Like the word Futaleufú, Mahanadi translates into “Great River” in English. Large rivers play an important role in supporting multiple ecosystems and providing irrigation and drinking water for millions of people to survive. But big rivers are also big targets for destruction. Ranjan spoke about how the Mahanadi could dry up completely without government action, due to over-development and urban drought exacerbated by climate change. He has been labeled a Climate Crusader in India and has thousands of followers who are looking to him and to Waterkeeper Alliance in his campaign to create healthy rivers and happy cities.

The highlight of this year’s conference was the welcoming of one of the world’s most celebrated Buddhist leaders, His Holiness, the Gyalwang Drukpa. We heard him talk about his decision to found the Himalayan Glacier Waterkeeper and continue his life’s work as the spiritual leader of hundreds of millions of people. He has an ambitious goal of protecting all the rivers of the Himalayas, a region so massive that it provides the water supply for over half the world’s population. Read more about International Rivers’ related work in the Himalayas.

Environmental challenges are increasingly interconnected. Climate change is the most obvious common threat, but there are other problems that demand collective action across borders to avoid catastrophe. The fracking industry, which coincidentally got started right here in Pennsylvania, is now stretching further than they ever have before, all the way to the tip of South America. The only things stopping them are the people who refuse to sit by and watch. Mining is an industry that constantly seeks expansion, and as they’ve learned in Nepal and as we’ve learned in Patagonia there is no place off-limits.

Countries in other regions have fewer legal protections to stop projects that threaten our waterways. And citizen opposition doesn’t always achieve the level of coordination needed to keep the fight going. There are dozens of anti-fracking groups here in Pennsylvania challenging corporate influence and state corruption through lawsuits and policy work; in other regions there may only be a few of us. Groups like Waterkeeper Alliance and International Rivers, which connect local organizations with larger campaigns, play a critical role in giving us the tools we need to fight.

One of the most important aspects of River Rally is the realization that almost every successful movement at some point started with a single person. Maybe it was a kayaker upset about her river being polluted, or a fisherman with a sick catfish on the end of his pole. It’s important for us to be reminded that every movement begins small, and that growth in a sense is about realizing we are not alone in thinking we should have a right to healthy rivers or a right to say no to fracking, or a right to keep foreign companies out. 

Traveling to River Rally is also a way for those of us working internationally to share our difficulties with each other and take what we can learn from the US movement to protect rivers and water. We have to show how our struggle is connected. That means listening to the many water advocates from watersheds around the globe that joined here for River Rally, and encouraging them to continue building bridges across borders so they can be a stronger voice in their communities. Ultimately their work benefits all of us. We may live thousands of miles apart but each of us benefits when one of us stops a river from being dammed or a glacier in the Himalayas from being covered with mining dust.

It’s fitting, therefore, that Waterkeeper Alliance and River Network would keep growing and seeking out partnerships with groups like International Rivers that have launched similar campaigns around the world. What started originally as a group of fishermen trying to reclaim their rivers now includes over 220 representatives from six continents. And this is just the beginning - His Holiness plans to launch 150 new Waterkeepers across the Himalayas in the coming years.

As Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said during his keynote address on Saturday, corporations cannot steal our natural resources without first contending with all of us. The more of us there are who work on these issues, the harder it is for big multinational companies like Endesa or Drummond or Sinohydro to push through projects that destroy local resources and send their profits back overseas. As River Rally proves, not only do we find strength in numbers but also in our increased connection and coordination. Together we can learn from each other and educate others about our cause.

The world needs more groups like River Network and Waterkeeper Alliance to address transboundary issues and change the global paradigm of water and river management. We need more leaders like Jeanette and Ranjan and Nabil willing to take on difficult issues where they live and more opportunities for them to go beyond their borders to seek out further knowledge to help fight and win. We are lawyers, street performers, venture capitalists, artists. And as River Rally comes to a close and we all head back home, we are taking with us the words of His Holiness, the Gyalwang Drukpa, who at one point smiled during his speech and said to us, “I am very, very happy to be part of your family.” Back home in the watersheds where we work, we may be few. But there is a global movement growing everyday, and I look forward to working together and getting the help our communities need to win these battles. Next year Waterkeeper Alliance will gather in Boulder, Colorado where we look forward to welcoming more global partners into the fold. 

Friday, June 6, 2014