By Portia Garnons-Williams
Around the world, Indigenous remote communities are living without reliable access to potable water. Lacking even the most basic drinking water infrastructure, Indigenous communities frequently fall victim to water pollution disasters. Such communities are ultimately the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Countries such as Canada have only
recently begun to recognize this climate injustice, and they are doing little about it. Before it is too late, youth must speak out and take action themselves.
Neskantaga, an Indigenous community in Northern Canada, has been living without reliable drinking water for over twenty-five years (Stefanovich 2020). As with many such communities around the globe, Neskantaga’s water crisis stems from settler colonialism and disempowerment of Indigenous people. Appalling governmental withholding of basic sanitation works, combined with unchecked corporate pollution of watersheds, puts the residents of Neskantaga at constant risk of serious illnesses such as influenza, whooping cough, and cancer (Hatline and Wiley 2019). What’s more, climate change will exacerbate the risk of water pollution, further imperilling Neskantaga’s drinking water.
Like Neskantaga, thousands of Indigenous communities around the world find their drinking water threatened by pollution and climate-change. As future leaders, youth will be vital in finding sustainable solutions to address this climate injustice. Young people are the voice of the future. We stand as a constant reminder to adults that they only pass through the land, and
that they must look after it on behalf of the generations to come. We must also push the adult stewards of the Earth to come together to the same table–water polluters, Indigenous people, policy makers and users of water alike–to create the shared understanding and the common goal of protecting the waters of the Earth, so that solutions can be found and the destruction stopped.
In collaboration with global Indigenous communities, youth should advocate for water to become an entity in its own right in law. The Maori have already taken action, demanding that water be treated as a “legal person” under the laws of New Zealand. Their action has been effective, and water now has recognized rights in New Zealand (Macpherson 2019). Implementing this legal concept on a global scale, governments could give watersheds legal standing, and allow the children of the watershed to speak on behalf of the water. Doing so will put water at an equal, if not higher, importance than urban infrastructure, industrial development, and resource harvesting practices that are environmentally unsound.
The youth of the world have no choice but to shoulder the responsibility of advocating for a sustainable future. By leading this crucial discussion, youth can ensure that the Sustainable Development Goal of ensuring access to water is met. Youth action can help make reliable and even bountiful supplies of potable water a secure fact of the future, not only for Indigenous communities such as Neskantaga, but for every community on Earth.
Hatline, Sandra, and Wiley, Keith. “LETTER: Clean water is a right for First Nations.” Nelson Star, 19 Mar. 2019,
https://www.nelsonstar.com/opinion/letter-clean-water-is-a-right-for-first-nations/. Accessed 19 September 2021.
Macpherson, Elizabeth Jane. “Water Rights for Māori in Aotearoa New Zealand.” Indigenous Water Rights in Law and Regulation: Lessons from Comparative Experience. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2019. 99-130. Print. Cambridge Studies in Law and Society.
https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108611091.005. Accessed 19 September 2021.
Stefanovich, Olivia. “After evacuating twice over tainted water, Neskantaga residents plan their
return home.” CBC, 17 Dec. 2020,
https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/neskantaga-plans-return-home-water-crisis-1.5840308. Accessed 19 September 2021