Water Rights and Responsibilities: limitations and new expectations

As water protectors we often talk of water rights and water responsibilities. These words go hand-in-hand like peace and justice, but let's decode what the differences are and the impacts each has on social movements and water care.

One of the biggest differences between the two - rights and responsibilities - is where they source their legitimacy. Rights come from States (governments) whereas responsibilities come from relationships (with past/future generations and with a democracy of species we share this living earth with).

Let's look at some examples to compare. 

Our first example asserts that nature is "not resources but a lifeforce that we have relationships to". Ownership has no standing for these Indigenous people and laws are not just written codes in books but the living practice of upholding responsibilities -- a living law. Responsibilities are pasted down through the ancestors for thousands of years. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom only started in 1982. 

The Blue Dot campaign is organizing Canadians to change their Charter of Rights and Freedoms and legally recognize people's right to a clean environment (air, water, safe food, and stable climate). See the video below for more on this campaign.

Instead of honouring ancestral responsibilities, Blue Dot appeals to the Federal government to grant us this right. It's a sobering situation that while Canadians have the right to health care (or in the USA the right to own a gun) we currently don't possess the right to a clean environment -- at least not without changing the Charter of Rights (or Bill of Rights in the USA). 

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has publicly said "the Federal Government gives permits, however it's communities who give permission". Which returns us to the question of legitimacy when it comes to rights. Who controls which rights are become law and which rights matter?

Rights are manually made, not automatic. They are 'from' government and 'for' us. The Community Environmental Legal Defence Fund works with communities to design and pass new laws that protect people from harm and entrenched laws that serve to protect corporate rights.

These rights are organized 'from' and 'for' affected communities. If you've ever participated in a government review process (for pipelines, water permits, and projects that threaten the perpetual care of your home waters) you might have felt that the process was designed to keep public participation minimal and passive. CELDF calls this a regulatory fallacy. They say:

Communities facing fracking, pipelines, factory farms, and other threats are recognizing that these seemingly “single” issue threats share something in common – the community doesn’t have the legal authority to say “No” to them. The existing structure of law ensures that people cannot govern their own communities and act as stewards of the environment, while protecting corporate “rights” and interests over those of communities and nature.

Many environmental laws actually legalize and legitimize pollution and corporate control, rather than disrupt water ethics of  'ownership' and 'utility'. CELDF works to create new laws (community rights, rights of nature, rights of future generations) because the old laws are built to sideline anti-corporate input and only mitigate harm.

What examples of rights or responsibilities is your community trying to strengthen or enliven? A Local Water Alliance was started in an Oregon county that organized a ballot measure to ban bulk water bottling. If passed it would ban corporations bottling more than 1,000 gallons/day and it would ban exporting water outside the county. Doesn't this sound like acting on our collective responsibilities and enacting laws to protect what matters most? The video below tells more of the story.

Ontario has an Environmental Bill of Rights which acts as a watchdog on certain provincial ministries and to facilitate public participation on projects that impact 'the environment'. Rather than being a Trustee for our common wealth, Ontario knows it can't be trusted and instead mandates a watchdog (with extremely limited powers). Visit their Environmental Registry and find out how long it takes you to be totally frustrated and overwhelmed with this 'participatory' process. What is the purpose of having rights if 99% of people don't know they exist and can't access the process? 

People in Ontario can propose new policies like in the Oregon case above. While the watchdog offers supportive workshops, there's only a 55 page guide on how to exercise your rights. No videos, no maps, nor a listing of other people's attempts (success or failure) to carry out their eco responsibilities. It's also hard to tell if more systemic issues can be addressed by this process such as: advocating for the rights of nature or the rights of future generation. The Ontario process is also reactionary and piecemeal. Individuals can only react to environmental threats rather shape eco governance and they have to focus on singular projects, rather than cumulative and systemic damage.

With thousands of Permits To Take Water in the Province, the total volume of water permitted every year in Ontario is equal to HALF the volume of Lake Ontario? Very few organizations have the resources to participate at this level with even less opportunity and impact for individuals. It's very hard to tell is the participatory water governance system is broken or it is purposefully built to exclude certain voices and values. 

Can we talk more about the limits to a rights-based approach of water protection? How do these rights disrupt the concentration of power that governments and corporations hold over decision making? How does a rights-based approach move beyond ethics of ownership, individualism, and state-based citizenship? 

What about existing rights that are not respected? Take your pick on forgotten rights. Try Treaty rights between American and Canadian governments with Indigenous nations or try Section 35 of Canada's Charter recognizing Aboriginal rights or the United Nations Declaration of Indigenous Peoples (with its key principle of free, prior and informed consent). Ontario's Bill of Rights is mute on Indigenous rights. Why do non-natives in Oregon get the same voting sway as the areas Indigenous peoples? Why isn't protecting existing Indigenous rights already enough to protect everyone's right to a healthy environment? 

While We Are All Treaty People here on Turtle Island, Indigenous rights are conveniently side-stepped for the (so called) greater good. Returning to the value of responsibilities, how do state-sponsored rights animate public duties to protect water?

What responsibilities does the Blue Dot campaign ask of people and their communities once the Charter is changed? What responsibilities does the Ontario's Bill of Rights enliven across the province? What responsibility does each person within Canadian and American borders have to respect nation-to-nation treaties? How can our current consumer-colonial society based on ownership and rights promote a water responsibilities that are more like guardianship instead of rights holders? 

This post is trying to decode the conflicting power relationships between states, citizens, and Indigenous peoples when it comes to rights. It's also trying to insert and assert the source and power of individual and collective responsibilities. What do you think? Are these fair summaries of the above examples? How did we do? What do these rights and responsibilities require of us?

Have you added your name and commitment yet to the Great Lakes Commons Charter? Here’s an invitation. Join our community of Charter supporters.