We return to contemplating water this week. Water is a subject I have been writing about and drawing for the last couple of years, as well as reading and researching about it. As a result of this research I recently reconnected with Li An Phoa, an environmental activist I first met over ten years ago at a conference in Edinburgh.

Since that time Li An has set up a Netherlands-based NGO ‘Drinkable Rivers’, a growing movement that seeks to tackle water pollution by reconnecting people with their watershed, working towards making our rivers clean and drinkable. Li An realised that drinkable rivers are an indicator of healthy living. When we can drink from our rivers, it means that a whole ecosystem is healthy and in balance. Rivers can only be drinkable when all actions and relations in an entire watershed contribute. I asked her to tell me more about ‘Drinkable Rivers’ and what motivates her to do this work.

 

Drinkable rivers
 

Sam:

Perhaps you could begin by speaking a little bit about the experience that inspired you to begin this project working towards drinkable rivers, and the river that you describe as your teacher, the Rupert River?

Li An:

Yes, that was an experience that sparked a lot in me, many questions and emotions. In 2005 I joined a canoe trip that was a protest paddle up the Rupert River in northern Canada, in Quebec. It was protesting a planned hydroelectric damming scheme. I thought I joined them as a researcher, but I ended up joining them in their fight as I started to understand what they were protecting.

It was the experience of being able to directly drink from the river that struck me, the first moment I made that gesture of bringing the water to my mouth to drink. It was so beautiful. I was so moved that at the same moment a tear ran down my cheek. And then I realised ‘Oh, this is what all our ancestors have been doing. And I forgot it. This is actually what’s normal.’ I could drink the water for the rest of the month that we travelled the Rupert River.

Drinkable Rivers
Then, I returned to that same place just three years later. By this time they had started to build the dam and other developments despite the local protest. The water was already badly polluted. I met an elder woman who lives there, a Cree indigenous woman, who was ill from mercury poisoning from eating the fish and drinking the water. Fish were also dying and getting deformed. So again I was in tears, but this time from shocked emotion and frustration. ‘Why with our good intentions, and all our knowledge and all our skilfulness we are still making these kinds of decisions with these kinds of effects that harm and even destroy ecosystems and individuals and communities?’

That mercury was an effect of a mix of what we call ‘economic development’. First the roads were built for the dam construction, and when the roads are built it’s easier for all the others to come. So, then the mining industry came, and you get mercury used in silver mining.

That’s when I decided, for myself, that I want to be this to be my personal compass; the health of water. I started to study Holistic Science at Schumacher College. I wanted to understand what I learned from my teacher, the river. How do we approach this from science? What language do we have for these experiences and this kind of wisdom and knowledge?

So that was the beginning of my personal compass. And then from having healthy water as my personal compass, I realised this can also be a societal compass.

Sam:

Yes, because something like three quarters of the Earth’s human population experience water ‘issues’ of some kind, either too much or too little, or water pollution. It’s a global problem that touches so many of us.

Li An:

Yes, and I think if you remember all living beings are 100% dependent on water, we see that water is our lifeline. So honouring, remembering and embedding that in all our actions, in everything we do, it becomes our new basis from which we act. Then we understand that when we actually care for what takes care of us it has a spin off for all these other domains, like social equity; everybody should have access to healthy water. Then, that will mean healthy soils, healthy food, buzzing life, biodiversity, climate stabilisation, so it will have all these other spin offs as well.

Sam:

So was that when you started to really think about drinkable rivers as being a leverage point that can you really use that as a tool for much wider systemic change?

Li An:

Right, that’s it exactly. Because in the years that it was my personal compass, I made a lot of decisions based on how would it be for the water. I was really studying our food systems, often directly from different farmers and growers and I saw the spectrum of how we are growing our food. And I saw that the main thread is what we do with the water. Wherever, in whatever sector, whatever part of the world, water is always the basis.

But it’s not just a matter of knowing the statistics. Even with all the beautiful and important and shocking documentaries that have been made, and all the reports, and all the signs, and even economic studies, somehow it’s not enough. It creates some change, yes. But it doesn’t create the systemic change that we need.

So I feel that it needs to really come from the softer side, thinking about how we see ourselves, how we see the world and how we are acting within it. I think once we really feel that we that were so much part of it, and that we can be aligned with it, that’s how we can start to see how our lives can also be in synchronicity. Then we can create life-generating qualities rather than life-destroying ones.

Sam:

You’ve been working with people to do ‘water walks’ following a river or coastline with you. Is that part of this kind of softer, more holistic and imaginative storytelling approach? And an embodied approach too, to telling the stories of our waters, particular waters, particular rivers?

Li An:

Yes, I love that you use the word ‘embodied’, because that’s something that is really important for me. I think first I do these walks because it makes my own heart sing. And I when that happens I can be enthusiastic. This is a condition for me to keep doing what I do despite a lot of the news we read. Despite all that, I feel I can do this and it generates energy for me to keep on doing it. I love being outside. So that’s one component.

And then the other thing is the metaphorical power that it has. Going step by step you can really accomplish things. You can cover great distances. You can be in touch with many people and landscapes. You really meet life while you’re there, in all its diversity. And that’s important because in order to reach the ambition of a drinkable river, you need everyone in a watershed to be aware, every day with every action.

Sam:

And I suppose the kinds of conversations that you can have with people when you’re walking outside are perhaps a different kind of conversation. You’re both walking side by side looking in the same direction rather than face to face. it’s naturally more collaborative than confrontational.

Li An:

Exactly. We can be more concentrated on each other’s stories, to really deeply listen and to also share from a very deep place. It helps so much to not constantly look each other in the eyes. That’s quite artificial anyway. This is also how our ancestors would have been growing up and communicating. The landscape plays such a role in that conversation too. It has both poetic and metaphorical value, and it’s concrete, rather than the abstract models and statistics where our conversations can often go to.

The first big river we walked, four years ago, was the river that has fed me all my life with drinking water, the River Meuse/Maas. It starts in France, and flows through Belgium and the Netherlands, over 1000 kilometres through that whole watershed. And from that has been a spin off: ‘Mayors for Drinkable Meuse’. Now, mayors and aldermen from the three countries are collaborating, getting to know each other and honouring the direction of the drinkable Meuse in their planning.

Then last year, we walked a river Ijssel, and that is now also a community of at least 20 organisations and eight municipalities that have joined together to say, ‘I want a drinkable Ijssel in 30 years, in one generation’.

So that’s the momentum each walk creates.

So another river is planned for next year, which starts in Germany and on to the Netherlands. And I’d like to go as soon as possible to walk the Thames.

Drinkable River Meuse
Sam:

It sounds like such a human way to bring people together and catalyse change. I think a lot of people do feel quite passionately about water and want to participate in change. Recently in the UK there’s been a lot of scandals around the water utility companies, polluting waterways like the chalk streams which are a rare habitat in the SouthEast of England. So people care, but often feel quite isolated and small.

But like you say, to walk together, you begin by taking a single step. And it’s like you’re embodying change one step at a time. We work together towards a destination that might be quite far off at the moment. But we go together, step by step.

Li An:

Yes. The meetings I have, the encounters that are created in these walks, with decision-makers or with anyone, they become quite unforgettable because they’re so human. And because they’re so lively. And somehow, that’s not so normal anymore to have that.

And indeed, we’ve somehow, almost all around the world, we’ve become so disempowered and overwhelmed by so many things. You might ask yourself ‘what does my life contribute?’ But our actions do have impact. Many of the big changes that we do see now have often been instilled by one person’s idea, then was picked up by a follower, and then a third person joined, and then the movement started.

I think we need to remember that again, and to remember that we have this innate connection to water. But we have to cultivate that care again.

Sam:

I think because water is so familiar, we can all understand it, but it’s also a really interesting way to think about how the local and the global are connected. You can literally sip from your glass of water and realise that what you’ve just taken into your body is physically connected to global systems, weather systems. It makes that interconnection very real and graspable.

Li An:

Yes, that has been my experience, too, that it’s understandable. And also ‘feelable’. On the one hand, water is ancient, and on the other hand, the oldest water in our body at the moment is four days old. We renew it constantly. That sense of wonder helps so much. And that’s what I was referring to with the ‘softer’ changes that we need, that culture change of experiencing ourselves again primarily as water beings, where water is our lifeline.

Then we understand its importance, and we start to care. Then we can start to instil this, or wake it up again, rather, because it’s more something that we’re remembering rather than something that we don’t have. We’ve just forgotten it a bit.

Sam:

You’re also still keeping the scientific side of this exploration, the ‘hard data’ collection going, with your ‘citizen science’ project, inviting people to gather data on their own waters?

Li An:

Yes. I’ve seen that doing something that has a bigger goal motivates us to contribute to something that is bigger than than us. We’re very fully engaged with our daily lives, but when we get that invitation, we do welcome it.

And so we now invite all kinds of local people to join in doing research in their own water or in local stream. They can use devices like sensors and measuring strips, and so learn how many things they can read from the water. It’s really a mirror of how we live; you can see what kind of agriculture, what traces are left behind, how we are washing ourselves, what food we are eating and how we’re treating the water and how we’re using the landscape, whether there is enough space for dragonfly larvae to grow and things like that. So it’s a way of awakening our senses and our abilities to observe.

Then we can ask ourselves, are we on the right track? Are we going towards a world with swimmable and drinkable rivers or not? When you gather data like that and integrate it with an agreed set of parameters, then we can really contribute as citizen scientists, looking in places where the scientists are not looking and comparing trends. We can really train our muscle to observe and keep an eye on how we’re doing

Sam:

And hold people in power to account…

Li An:

That is the power that is growing from this. It’s not the explicit aim of Citizen Science, which is more to grow in our experience, love, and care for water. But we now have more than 40 organisations around the world involved. Some of them do it for education and awareness reasons. For others it’s more for keeping accountability or finding evidence against the growth of a harbour, for instance, or looking at evidence from upstream of the industrial park and downstream, or comparing upstream of the municipality with downstream of it. So yes, indeed it also gives power to make a case or invite others to join.

Sam:

And if people want to get involved with that, and so, there’s information on the website?

Li An:

Yes, there is more information on Citizen Science, and there they can either join one of their local hub organisations or start their own research team. And if you just want to be follow what we’re doing, you can also go directly to www.drinkablerivers.org.

Drinkable Rivers Book
Sam:

And you also had a book out recently in Dutch, “Drinkable Rivers” the book. Is it coming out in English?

Li An:

Yes, there’s now two publishers that are interested. It’s not clear yet who will make that decision. But yes, it has come out in the Netherlands in June last year, and we’re in our third print here. It’s very popular and I know that if it was available in English then of course it would be accessible for so many more readers, so I really hope that it comes soon. Get ready!

 

Stay in touch

If you've rummaged around my website and feel you're a kindred spirit I'd love to stay in touch. Opt in to receive my weekly e-letter about finding creativity and resilience in bewildering times.

Welcome, you have successfully subscribed!