Incoming Fax for the Lubicon: You’ve Got an Oil Spill

The sad saga of the Lubicon Cree in northern Alberta is a grim reminder that Canada’s human rights record is dismal when it comes to respecting the rights of First Nations people. As Amnesty International Canada has pointed out, “In 1990, the United Nations Human Rights Committee ruled that Canada was violating the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by failing to properly protect Lubicon land rights from the impact of resource extraction activities.” 

The resource extraction in question is oil, and there have been billions of dollars worth of oil extracted from their land while they live in abject poverty. Because the use of their land for oil extraction has been hotly debated for so long, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people wrote that “…the Lubicon people continue to face dire social and economic conditions that are highly uncharacteristic of Canada, a country with overall human development indicators that score at or near the top among the countries of the world. In his 2009 report on his mission to Canada, the then Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to nondiscrimination in this context, Miloon Kothari, found that the Lubicon ‘community does not receive adequate basic services or access to water. Because of the non-resolved status of  these lands, federal and provincial authorities do not agree on their competencies and responsibilities.’ Representative of the sub-standard conditions of the Lubicon people is the lack of piped water or sewer facilities for the hamlet of Little Buffalo, where most of the Lubicon members live, a condition confirmed by the Government in its response.”

Their conditions are indeed pathetic (watch the Amnesty film here) and are getting worse. A couple of weeks ago the Lubicon in Little Buffalo suffered another blow as a massive oil spill affected areas dangerously close to waterways. The Lubicon were informed about the oil spill through a fax by the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board. From Greenpeace’s website: “Instead of attending an in-person community meeting, the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) faxed a one-page fact sheet to Little Buffalo School. The fact sheet indicates that 28,000 barrels of crude oil, or 4,500 cubic metres, has spread into nearby stands of ‘stagnant water.’ ” Had I been on the receiving end of that fax, I would have likely told the ERCB to go fax themselves, or to politely fax off. Residents, including schoolchildren, suffered nausea, burning eyes, and headaches.

Greenpeace also noted recent wildfires that could prove hazardous to the population. The fires have already devastated 40% of the town of Slave Lake. Greenpeace campaigner Melina Maboucan-Massimo expressed her hope that “As a member of the Lubicon Cree First Nation, I would like to be able to reassure my relatives and friends in the area that there is a contingency plan for protecting the spill site should the wildfires draw closer. I know the community would appreciate timely information and have concerns with respect to the lack of transparency to date.  I hope and expect that a clear plan of action for one of Alberta’s oldest communities is being finalized now. Any details you could provide would be appreciated.”

Well, the best advice I can give is: Don’t unplug your fax.

Take action with Amnesty International Canada.

Water: What many of us take for granted

October 15 is Blog Action Day. The theme this year is water. The statistics outlining the dire situation of almost a billion people around the world without proper access to water and sanitation is deplorable. Hopefully the recent decision by the UN General Assembly declaring that access to water and sanitation is a human right will have some impact among states. It should encourage them to take the necessary measures to provide access to water for all their citizens, with special consideration for marginalized populations (from minorities to people in rural areas to urban slums to refugee camps). It should also be an opportunity for non-governmental organizations and civil society organizations to strengthen their efforts to make governments accountable for upholding their human rights obligations with respect to water and sanitation.

As a Canadian living in a large metropolitan area, I have no worries about access to water and sanitation. In fact, Canadians are among the biggest water consumers in the world. Among OECD countries, only the US out-consumes us. We consume 1600 cubic metres of water per person per year. We’re spoiled, and let me tell you what irks me:

  • Anyone who drinks bottled water, especially “purified” water like Dasani or Aquafina, which is nothing but tap water bottled by Coca-Cola and Pepsi. A friend of mine who grew up in Kuwait once told me how shocked he was seeing people buy bottled water in Canada. “Just turn on the tap and drink it, it’s fine! In Kuwait, our tap water had sand in it, we had no choice but to buy bottled water.”
  • People who take 30-minute showers. I am not exaggerating. My wife and I stayed with a couple once where one of them…oh let’s call her Gloria…took a half hour shower. How can anyone be that dirty? Since then, if either one of us takes a shower lasting more than a few minutes, we criticize each other for taking a “Gloria shower.”
  • Neighbours who water their lawn in the summer time, the whole damn night. OK, so it’s one neighbour. And our city usually enforces a ban on watering during the summer months, but it’s rarely enforced, and certainly not monitored at night. So his lawn is prettier than mine. My weeds are green enough.
Water pipes at the Shatila Palestinian refugee camp, Beirut, 2008.
The water is tapped from municipal water sources and distributed among the refugees.
They also relied on barrels of water brought into the camp.

I try to be appreciative of what we have. It helps that I’ve lived in situations where I have had little or no access to water – I think those situations have helped me put matters in perspective. When I taught in Malawi in 1994, the boarding school where I taught closed down for three months due to drought. During my second year living in Ghana in the late 90s, that country was also afflicted by drought and there were days when I had to make do with one bucket of water. That bucket had to suffice for all my needs except for drinking (I was lucky to have access to bottled water). Bathing would take up about 2 litres, then any remaining dirty water was poured in the toilet’s tank ad then used whenever necessary. The rest of the water was used for cooking or laundry. It was damn annoying for a few months. My life was never at risk, but it was inconvenienced. So when I see statistics telling me that almost a billion people don’t have access to clean water, it bugs me. When I read that 38000 children under the age of 5 will die this week from unsafe drinking water and unhygienic conditions, it bugs me. And when someone buys tap water in a bottle, that also bugs me.

Dying of Thirst: Access to water is a human right

A recent report from the World Bank estimates that 700 million people in 43 countries are living under “water stress.” No, I didn’t know what that term meant but I had a good guess. GreenFacts says it occurs when “the demand for water exceeds the available amount during a certain period or when poor quality restricts its use.”

I’ve been thinking about access to water today because I’m at the point in my other blog, a journal of my time teaching in Africa, where I am about to describe the senseless, preventable death of someone I knew. The death shocked me when it happened 17 years ago, and its senselessness has remained in my head ever since. The man in question who passed away probably drank unsafe drinking water in his village, caught dysentery, and within a matter of days passed away. It simply didn’t need to happen. We live on a planet where, according to UNICEF, lack of safe water and sanitation is the world’s single largest cause of illness. In 2002, 42 per cent of households had no toilets, and one in six people had no access to safe water. The death toll on children is especially cruel: about 4500 children die each day from unsafe drinking water and lack of basic sanitation facilities.

Governments have obligations to ensure that their citizens have sufficient and continuous access to water, that the water is of adequate quality, and that there is no discrimination in being able to access that water. (The UN’s General Comment 15 on the right to water explains what the right means in detail.) In poor countries, governments are simply not doing enough. And even if the quality of water is inadequate, there should at least be a minimum amount of health initiatives promoting alternatives to making the water potable, namely boiling the water, which is what I did for years living in Africa (and I had the rusted pots to prove it). Governments need to be more accountable for their obligations in ensuring the right to water – it’s a right like any other, and for any violation of that right, citizens should have access to the proper mechanisms to seek redress, namely through public grievance offices, national human rights, commissions, or courts.

The reality of course is not so simple. The UN suggests that a person needs a minimum of 20 litres of water per day to meet their basic needs; in some refugee camps around the world, you’d be lucky if people got a quarter of that. Internally displaced persons, like the thousands whose lives were disrupted by the earthquake in Haiti, are in desperate need of potable drinking water and an efficient mechanism for water distribution. One TV news report I saw a couple of weeks ago boasted that there was more clean water in Haiti now than there was before the earthquake. Perhaps that is so, but does everyone have access to that water?
When I read up on issues like access to water, I tend to get discouraged. I guess it comes with the job: I work on human rights issues, plenty of which are sad reminders of our inadequacy as a collective humanity to improve the lives of those who are suffering, even if they are strangers. Thankfully it often takes the small and courageous actions of a few people to restore hope: Here’s an example of an NGO helping to install water chlorinators in communities in Haiti. What’s cool is that they specified on their website the GPS coordinates of the communities.

While NGOs and civil society in general can do a lot to help promote proper access to water, I think there could be a fair bit of awareness-raising on the other end for consumers who spend an astounding amount of water. Canada, I’m afraid to admit, is one of the worst offenders. An OECD (Organization for Economic and Co-operation Development) report shows that my country is a dismal 28th out of 29 countries among per capita consumption of water use. What can average Canadians do to bring this number down? As one student said to me last year, “Take shorter showers.” That’s good – if everyone took showers that were half as long, I’m sure we’d make a difference. But as Thomas Friedman mentions in Hot, Flat, and Crowded (I’m paraphrasing here): if you’re going to make a difference to improve the environment, it’s going to hurt. Change isn’t easy. He scoffs at the supermarket magazines with covers offering “10 easy tips to save the environment” – saving the environment is intricately linked to ensuring access to water for all, is not and likely never will be “easy.”

Access to water is another example of a human rights issue where there is tremendous disparity in how the right is realized, respected, and even understood among those who have no water to consume and those who have an abundance of it coupled with little appreciation for this precious commodity. Nobody should die from thirst, or from drinking polluted water, it just doesn’t make sense. But there you go, in the time I wrote this, about 200 children around the world died because of unsafe drinking water. When do statistics become so horrifying that we will actually move to action?