Lakehead University is one of the most exciting, innovative, and dynamic institutions of higher education in the whole country. It has prepared you to think for yourselves, be guided by your conscience, and act in honour and with dignity at all times.
I am a social justice activist. My work takes me all over Canada and around the world on a wide variety of issues but I thought I would take my few minutes this morning to talk to you about the one closest to my heart – the world’s freshwater crisis. My concern over this issue started years ago with our fight to take water out of international trade agreements like NAFTA and the WTO and to stop the sale of Canada’s water for profit. But the more I learned about Canada’s water, the more I knew that I would have to deal with the fact that there are many parts of the world with little or no water for life at all.
The world is running out of fresh water. Humans are depleting, polluting, and diverting the world’s supply of fresh water so fast, that by 2025, unless we dramatically change our ways, two-thirds of the world’s people will be living (or dying) under severe water shortages. As it is now, every eight seconds, a child dies of water-borne disease.
This shouldn’t be possible. We were all taught that the hydrologic cycle is closed, that there is a finite amount of water in our system, which remains unchanged over time. Our teachers were not lying. Not only is there the same amount of water on the planet as at its creation, but also it is the same water.
What is also true, tragically, and what our teachers could not have foreseen, is that it is possible to render this water unusable for humans and unsafe for the ecosystem itself. Industrial farming and massive pollution, combined with the destruction of wetlands and the diversion of rivers by massive dams, have destroyed much of the world’s surface waters, leading us to mine the groundwater all over the world, thirstily depleting ancient aquifers before nature can replenish them. As a result, the earth now resembles an apple that is drying up on the inside, with brown spots on an otherwise healthy-looking fruit.
Right now an epic struggle is taking place in many parts of the world around these dwindling freshwater supplies. Large transnational water corporations are taking over the operation of water systems where poor governments cannot provide these services. Because the companies have to charge high prices in order to make a profit for their investors, millions of poor people cannot afford to buy their water and have to rely on contaminated rivers and streams for their water supplies.
As well, big bottling companies like Coke and Nestle are hunting for new water sources as the quality of public water is allowed to deteriorate in many parts of the world. Last year, companies put over 100 billion litres of water in plastic bottles around the world – an act of collective insanity as far as I am concerned. So I call water “Blue Gold” as it is becoming more precious than oil.
However, all over the world, communities are fighting to take back their local water systems from these giant corporations. People in hundreds of communities are demanding that their governments provide them with safe, clean, and affordable water as a public service. In October 2004, Uruguay became the first country in the world to vote in a national election for a constitutional amendment to guarantee every citizen the right to water on a not-for-profit basis.
These groups have formed into a powerful international civil society movement devoted to reclaiming water as a global “commons.” Central to this movement is the fight for a United Nations Convention on the Right to Water. The omission of water from both the original United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a problem that has hampered the efforts of those working for the right to water for all.
The answers to a water-secure world lie on the twin foundations of conservation on one hand – using every drop once – and water justice on the other – the fundamental right of every person to water for life. What is needed now is a concerted effort by the peoples of the earth and their governments to fundamentally change our relationship to water and to create a global plan of survival based on these cornerstones.
So on this wonderful day, I invite you to join us in the fight for a just and sustainable world. It may not be the fight for clean water that will be your challenge. It may be the fight against poverty, or discrimination, or violence. You may choose to fight for a united Canada or peace or a just system for Canada’s First Nations peoples, who by the way, could teach us how to live in harmony with nature instead of destroying it for our own pleasure. But choosing to live for something greater than yourself is the best decision you can make in life. And it is this choice I urge you to make today.
Money has its place. It is good to have enough money to provide stability and opportunity for your family; to allow you to be a good friend in time of need; and to help you be a productive and generous member of your community – locally and internationally. But the pursuit of money for its own sake will not give you the quality of life or peace of mind that a life lived for others will provide. Trust me. And trust me that having an ethical compass will stand you all your life. My favorites are the seven deadly sins that Mahatma Gandhi asks us to reject:
Pleasure without conscience;
Knowledge without character;
Commerce without morality;
Wealth without work;
Worship without sacrifice;
Science without humanity;
Politics without principle.
There is a new world waiting to be born. South African spiritual leader Archbishop Desmond Tutu says this to the old one: “You have already lost. You need to get out of the way so that we can rebuild – for our children and all life on this planet.”
Your life choices await you.