People inherently believe that communities impacted by unhealthy waters (or threats to healthy waters) should have a say in decisions that impact those waters. In parallel, they respond strongly when it is felt that companies have greater impact on decisions then local residents - the support generated when it was proposed that Nestlé had greater rights to groundwater access then local communities in Wellington County is a recent example of this.
This reaction, may be indirectly tied, to a subconscious notion that we are to be guardians over water. How can we be guardians when we are disconnected from decision-making? Who do we trust to be guardians over water? It is clear that, as a society, we do not believe corporations will be these guardians.
Currently, people do not feel that they have influence over decision-making. But they also are unclear on where decision-making actually does reside. Governance, as a topic, is fuzzy for people, hard to understand where the levers for change actually are, boring even. It is a source of confusion for people. This makes driving action for water protection difficult. In communications, we know that when people get confused, they tune out.
Evoking the notion of guardianship might make this discussion on governance easier on people. After all, we have pride in our communities, in our waters. To honour this pride, we must be guardians for its protection. By driving a strong sense of place and cultural connection to water, we can facilitate a guardianship, the power of which will supercede our confusion around where, how and when decisions around water reside. It may even drive a greater community awareness on the health of and threats to local waters. We, at least in theory, take greater attention to the things we are charged with caring and looking out for.
Notions of guardianship can both recognize that water gives us all life, and that we in turn give water our attention, our duty to protect and care for its health. Building guardianship in our communities, however, is not always easy. The Great Lakes Commons explores using “a compass of care” that it has designed to contextualize the many ways communities can build guardianship over water. It explains the many different ways we engage and connect with water and how each can be used to deepen understanding, connection and ultimately guardianship of waters.
How can you evoke a greater sense of water guardianship in your community and spark community decision-making and/or dialogue on its appropriate use and care? Virtual tools, can offer us new avenues to engage residents in dialogue. A tool like Loomio, for example, could support deepening discussion and dialogue on local waters - a virtual town hall, or citizens assembly of sorts?
Citizen assembly’s, whether virtual or in-person, can promote greater civic engagement in water decision-making. The Milwaukee Water Assembly offers an empowering example of how residents, indigenous communities, water and future generations can all be represented in a powerful model of local decision-making.
Communities need to feel empowered to engage in discussion around freshwater health and corresponding decisions of how they and their communities support decisions that protect and defend healthy waters.
This blog series is inspired by a ½ day exploratory conversation convened through the Our Living Waters Network. At the meeting, a small group of network members and supporters explored the dominant freshwater narratives that we’ve encountered in our work for freshwater health across Canada. Participants of the workshop included: Canadian Freshwater Alliance, Great Lakes Commons, Mountain Equipment Co-op, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, and Tides Canada. The opinions throughout the series represent those of the author and not necessarily any of the workshop participants.