Standing Rock: A Rallying Cry in the Global Battle for Rivers

Kate Horner

For weeks now, the world’s eyes have been fixed on North Dakota.

The epic battle at Standing Rock is North America’s largest-ever gathering of native peoples. Indigenous leaders and activists have converged to defend their lands from a proposed oil pipeline.  The mobilization has galvanized an international movement, and brought allies to the cause from throughout the Americas, and indeed the world.

And why is this all happening? Because of water.

The Missouri River, the longest river in North America, has been dammed and channelized for over a century. A full 35% of its length is stifled in reservoirs, by dams that frequently flooded tribal families out of the richest, most productive bottomlands. These projects evicted people from their lands, and left behind generations of poverty. And now a new threat looms.

The Dakota Access oil pipeline will cross under the Missouri River, less than a mile upstream from the Standing Rock Reservation. If the pipeline were to spring a leak – a common-enough occurrence – it could pollute the river and poison the water supply, for the Sioux and millions downstream who depend on clean water for drinking water and farms. Fish populations, wildlife and irrigated farmland all face significant harm.

Standing Rock is an all-too-familiar David-and-Goliath fight. All over the world, from the Amazon to the Mekong, communities are struggling for control of their lands, waters and lives against large and frequently unaccountable corporate and government interests.

For decades, big business and governments have looked at water – our most precious resource, the source of life – as a disposable commodity to be exploited, consumed and discarded.

They have funneled billions of dollars into costly, harmful development projects. Country after country has turned its rivers into industrial waterways and polluted, stagnant stair-steps of reservoirs that serve hydropower plants, the fossil fuel industry, mining, and industrial-scale agriculture – all at the expense of human health, our water supply, our fisheries and the environment.

Many of the world’s rivers have gradually morphed from vibrant ecosystems into polluted dead zones managed solely for the profit of big business. The people who made their living alongside these rivers have been pushed to the margins, forgotten, and left to deal with the consequences on their own, experiencing poverty and displacement for generations.

But the people who have traditionally lived on rivers and acted as their custodians are not disposable.

They are the guardians of the source of life, and they are not giving up without a fight. Standing Rock is the latest uprising in a global movement for rivers that has been gathering strength for the past three decades.

In the Amazon, indigenous groups are struggling against the wholesale destruction of their river and its vast rainforest – the lungs of our planet. In India, people’s movements have rejected big dams and returned to traditional knowledge, reclaiming water in the driest deserts to bring their villages back to life. In Thailand, the government can’t build dams because of the ferocious resistance it encounters.

The world over, people’s movements are fighting, tenaciously and with grit, humor and intelligence, for the most basic of rights: the right to a say over what happens to their lands, waters and lives. And some are paying the ultimate price for their activism.

There have been many successes, and some heartbreaking defeats. But in the past year, we’ve seen the pace of reform accelerate. Terrible, corruption-ridden dam projects are being canceled from Russia to Brazil. In Africa, the World Bank is shifting funds out of troubled projects and increasing its investments in solar power. And climate and river activists are finally squeezing antiquated technologies out of the energy sector, making way for wind and solar power.

Momentum is on our side. We must seize this moment to protect all the life-giving waterways we have: our rivers, our wetlands, our forests, our floodplains. We must do it for the incredible biodiversity they nourish and sustain.  We must do it for all the fisher folk. And we must do it for our children and grandchildren.

Why? Because healthy rivers are fundamental to the health and wellbeing of our people and this planet. They are the unsung heroes of the natural world. Without healthy rivers, we cannot survive the coming climate chaos.

Rivers feed our most vulnerable, sustain some of our most diverse ecosystems, protect us from floods and droughts, and are central to the cultural identity of so many people around the world. We must seize this moment to protect and restore our rivers for the good of this and future generations.

The Amazon. The Mekong. The Congo. The Brahmaputra. The Missouri.

The rivers may be different, but the fight is the same. It’s a fight for our future. Because water is life.  

Kate Horner is the Executive Director of International Rivers.

Thursday, November 3, 2016