Like water itself, the protection of this vital resource takes many different forms.
Water is essential. It is the source of life for all living things, and its presence makes the difference between life and death. Climate change, too, manifests in water: too much or too little of it in the form of flooding, atmospheric rivers, blizzards, severe droughts, and wildfires. Activists the world over are working to protect and reconnect with the water. They argue that water is sacred, an essential element, and a kindred spirit. While their methods vary, the goal is the same: to defend water so it can keep us and our future ancestors alive. Big Wind Carpenter (Northern Arapaho) is a two-spirit water protector who has protested projects that threaten waters and communities across the continent.
Big Wind Carpenter is a two-spirit member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe who grew up on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, where fossil fuel extraction impacted every aspect of their life. “The river that we used to play in was being used for the dissolved solids of the fossil fuel industry,” they say. The local political and educational systems were also funded by (and reflected the values of) that industry.
Carpenter describes the extreme contrasts visible from their mother’s house: To the south is a sulfuric acid plant (which used to be a yellowcake uranium factory) and a largely Native population living in trailer homes. To the north are mansions, golf courses, and a largely white population. “Of course, they aren’t exposed to the industries that we were exposed to,” Carpenter explains. In September 2022, Carpenter headed to the Clearwater County Courthouse in Bagley, Minnesota, to face charges for protesting the Line 3 pipeline. They had been arrested a year earlier and charged with “obstruction of a legal process” and “public nuisance.” Carpenter’s charges were dropped in October 2022.
Carpenter says this contrast activated them to start organizing early, at the age of 13. “For my grandparents’ generation, it was the American Indian Movement,” Carpenter says. “I think that the Water Protector movement is … our generation’s equivalent—to take up an agelong fight.”
Carpenter’s first direct action began in 2016, protesting the Dakota Access pipeline at Standing Rock, where they were arrested in early 2017. The following year, they fought a pipeline in western Massachusetts. When Carpenter was acquitted in 2018, they headed from the courtroom straight to northern Minnesota to demonstrate against the Line 3 pipeline for the next three years.
Photo courtesy of Big Wind Carpenter
Carpenter says they had a kind of epiphany over the course of their activism: “It’s not just this river that’s sacred. All of them are sacred. Every single one of them, even if they’re being poisoned right now, even if they’ve been poisoned in the past. That water itself is a sacred thing.” Carpenter was one of four climate activists who interrupted President Joe Biden’s speech at the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, by vocalizing a war cry and unfurling a “People vs. Fossil Fuels” banner.
Today, Carpenter is back in Wyoming protecting their home waters, including Wind River itself and glaciers of the Wind River Range that are melting fast as the climate warms. Carpenter is now working on a project called the Indigenous Land Alliance of Wyoming, which aims to change the Western understanding of reciprocity—treating water not as a resource but as a relative. “We’re actually all threads in this interwoven blanket that are doing Creator’s work,” says Carpenter. Kelly’s artwork aims to connect people with their local environment. These aerial maps of the River Arth are composed of 5,540 blue dots—one for each hour that a local treatment plant pumped sewage into the river in 2020.
Rebecca Wyn Kelly was running a restaurant and an art gallery when the COVID-19 pandemic brought her back home to the tiny Welsh village of her youth, Aberarth. She realized there was a lot of work to do with the River Arth, the waterway she’d been swimming in all of her life. Kelly uses art to connect her community with her local waters—in the form of art classes, group swims, and river safaris. “Artists have always been there alongside the physicians, alongside the mathematicians, the philosophers, the linguists, the thinkers.”
She says it’s because artists see the world through creative eyes that invite people to engage with concepts like climate change and pollution, even if they don’t fully understand them: “Wow, look how they’ve captured that water. Perhaps I should look at the water differently.” Much of her art embodies threats to the River Arth, such as a map of the river made up of 5,540 blue dots, each one representing an hour during which raw sewage was being discharged from a local water treatment plant into the tiny, 24-kilometer river in 2020. These “listening cones” enable visitors to interact with the art and hear the sounds of the river amplified.
“I’m using this river as a kind of metaphor for our autonomy as people and our language and our ways of living and our culture,” Kelly says. Historically, the Welsh language and ecosystems were undermined by colonialism and its consumption-centered worldview. “Our river holds all of that, so all … that has been lost within our village life can be regained through the story of this river.” Kelly says that when it comes to climate action, people are overloaded with data and exhausted by empty political promises. She aims to counter this by introducing the climate justice movement to what she calls “sacred activism.”
“By taking a walk, you are doing the work. By getting in the water, you are doing the work.” It’s enough to show up for the magic of cloud gazing or a storm or the tide going in and out, she says. Rekindling a relationship with nature is the first step in standing up for it. “There still is joy, and it’s still OK to seek that for yourself and for our surrounding environment as a way of protest and activism.” Activist and administrator John Akec (center) participated in an intergenerational dialogue seminar in March 2023, in advance of the UN Conference on Water to discuss how individuals and institutions in South Sudan can fight climate change.
When John Akec describes the Sudd Wetland, he makes it clear what’s at stake: the largest wetland on the African continent and the second-largest in the world, on the list of tentative UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
But swamps have never been easy for Western societies to love. Even delineating the Sudd Wetland’s area is squishy: During the dry season, it covers about 16,000 square miles, but come the rainy season, it expands to nearly 35,000 square miles. This seasonal flooding allows vegetation to grow in what would otherwise be desert, and fish to live in shallow ponds left behind. The fluidity of these food sources supports the nomadic pastoralism of approximately 1 million Dinka, Nuer, Shilluk, and Anyuak people who call this area home.
Historically, the wetland helped protect the region from British colonial forces. Today, the Sudd continues to support people and entire ecosystems. “Water is more valuable than gold, more valuable than oil,” Akec says.
Akec was in intermediate school when a project began in 1978 to channelize the flow of water through the wetland to capture what was being “lost” to evaporation. Despite his young age, he protested the project, which eventually came to a halt in 1984. In South Sudan, seasonal flooding of the Nile River is essential to support the grasslands on which nomadic peoples indigenous to the area have long grazed their cattle.
In 2021, the project to drain the Sudd Wetland was revived, this time in the name of flood mitigation. “I was horrified,” Akec says. Now a systems engineer, economist, social activist, and administrator at University of Juba, Akec took to social media to raise awareness of the proposed dredging and channelizing, which would disrupt the hydraulic cycle and leave the region drier. University students staged an enormous demonstration on campus, and that same day, Akec received a call from the South Sudanese president’s office telling him the dredging project had been suspended. There was also a thinly veiled threat to his job, but Akec plans to keep fighting.
“I know this country was fought for by people with their blood,” Akec says. “If you are living, then you try to fight with the tools that are available.”
|Breanna Draxler is a senior editor at YES!, where she leads coverage of climate and environmental justice, and Native rights. She has nearly a decade of experience editing, reporting, and writing for national magazines including National Geographic online and Grist, among others. She collaborated on a climate action guide for Audubon Magazine that won a National Magazine Award in 2020. She recently served as a board member for the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Northwest Science Writers Association. She has a master’s degree in environmental journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder. Breanna is based out of the traditional territories of the Coast Salish people, but has worked in newsrooms on both coasts and in between. She previously held staff positions at bioGraphic, Popular Science, and Discover Magazine.