A quarter-century after the United Nations designated March 22 World Water Day, its observance is more urgent than ever. Around two billion people consume unsafe water every day; close to a million die each year from related contamination and disease. Another 700 million — most of them women — travel hours by foot to the nearest water source. Global freshwater demand, meanwhile, is expected to spike a third by 2050, as climate change and pollution put further strains on supply.
Clean water shortages don't always conform to stereotype — the problem of mega-city shantytowns and famously arid deserts. This century's water crisis is a hydra-headed beast that reaches far into the last place you'd expect to find it — in that lushest of biomes, the Amazon rainforest.
How is this possible? In a word, oil. Since the 1970s, the petroleum industry has spilled billions of barrels of crude and related pollutants in the rivers and forests of the Upper Amazon. In much of Ecuador and Peru, traditionally abundant groundwater sources — rivers, streams, and lagoons — are contaminated beyond use. Nowhere is this truer than northeastern Ecuador, sometimes called the "Amazon Chernobyl," a region that was contaminated over the course of three decades by the U.S. oil firm Chevron (then known as Texaco).
For years after the poisoning of their water sources, the four ancestral nations of the region — the Kofan, Secoya, Siona and Waorani — did not understand why so many people, especially the young, were getting sick, and dying of cancer and strange illnesses. During a visit to the region several years ago, a Kofan elder named Emergildo Criollo explained to me that the concept of toxic pollution had no meaning in their cultures prior to oil — the idea literally did not exist.
"In our language, 'water' is a synonym for 'clean'," Criollo told me. "How could we ever have imagined that the companies could turn water into sickness?"
When I first met Criollo in 2015, he was busy with an ambitious project called Clear Water, to build small-scale rain catchment systems in rural indigenous communities devastated by oil. When I returned to the region last month, I found him even busier. Criollo, who watched two of his children die after drinking contaminated river water, now sits on the leadership council of a recently formed indigenous organization named the Ceibo Alliance. Together with a partner NGO, Amazon Frontlines, Ceibo this winter celebrated the construction of the 1,000th water system in the region, which together provide clean water to more than 1,000 families in 72 communities across five million acres of critically threatened primary forest.
"We have banded together in a joint struggle to ensure that all of our families have access to clean water," Criollo told me at the Ceibo Alliance compound, just outside the regional capital of Lago Agrio. "Our struggle is the same as our fellow water protectors in North America. We are defending water, defending life, defending our territory. We won’t stop until all of our families are safe from the toxins the companies have dumped on us for so long."
Ceibo and Amazon Frontlines have a goal of providing fresh water to every community in the area that needs it by the end of 2018. They are already close: Only 10 communities without clean water sources have yet to receive the catchment systems. On March 22, World Water Day, the groups launched a campaign, #LessOilMoreWater, to raise awareness and funds for the final stretch. The campaign seeks to raise $100,000 for the remaining 150 systems by August 9, Indigenous Peoples Day.
Building and maintaining the systems has provided the communities with more than just clean water and peace of mind. After years of feeling helpless under the onslaught of state-backed oil companies, the systems have helped generate a feeling of empowerment that goes beyond the water issue.
"With every water system that we build, we are also building courage, and political power, and the possibility to free ourselves from the shadows of the companies," says Norma Nenquimo, a Waorani member of the Ceibo leadership council. "Clean water gives us life, but also freedom."
At a recent meeting of the Ceibo leadership council, I heard variations of this theme from each of the four nations. Hernan Payaguaje, a Secoya member of the Alliance, said that the communities are building upon the water project to confront future challenges. "The water project has brought our people together and given us the strength to confront the government and the companies, to protect our rivers and to defend our territory," he said. "If we leave our lives up to the designs of outsiders, we will be condemned to drink and cook with water full of heavy metals and hydrocarbons."
Contamination in the Ecuadorian Amazon did not end when Chevron (Texaco) pulled up stakes in the late 1990s. More than 1,500 new oil wells have been drilled in the region during the last five years, bringing the total number of active wells and drilling platforms to nearly 5,000. Nearly 1,000 rainforest region spills were officially reported in the last decade, releasing the equivalent of 4,000 gallons of waste a day. This long-term catastrophe is the cost of extracting just nine years of proven reserves, or less than three months of U.S. oil consumption.
"It's important to tell our story to the world, and that the world listens," said Emergildo Criollo, the Kofan leader whose own two children died after drinking toxic water. "We hope that our struggle can inspire others in the world to organize, to resist, and to create new ways of living that don’t depend on the destruction of the planet."