Building Bridges in the Struggle over Water

Water is "a human rights and Indigenous rights issue," so declares the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) website which warns that many governments and corporations fear a "rights-based approach" to water. Enei Begaye, the new water campaigner for IEN, a co-founder of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, and a new mother, has been traversing the continent, 3-month old Na’ni’eezh in arms, speaking out about the importance and sacredness of clean water for all.

"It’s important for indigenous communities to network, to get organized about it," says Begaye. "The world’s water supply is being diminished. We need to work together on it."

Begaye, a Dine’ (Navajo) and O’odham, is from a community in Arizona known as Shaa’tō, or Glitter of Light Off of Water. The spring her community is named after has dried up. Traditionally used for corn crops and ceremonies, it used to bubble up from the Navajo Aquifer, which contains some of the most pristine, smooth-tasting drinking water in the world. Peabody Coal Company pumps this water, mixes it with coal from its Black Mesa and Kayenta mines on the reservation, and slurries it through a 275-mile pipeline to the Mojave Generating Station in Nevada which supplies power for the neon lights of Las Vegas and cities in southern California. All this in a desert environment which has been suffering from severe drought for the last five years.

"Our people are afraid to stand up for our water, for our land, because the company is holding money and jobs over our heads," says Begaye.

The Mojave Generating Station is slated to shut down temporarily in 2005 for its lack of compliance with Clean Air Act regulations. Whether or not it reopens depends in part on continued water supply for the coal slurry. A couple of proposals are on the table. A new power plant could be built directly on Black Mesa next to the mines, or Peabody could start pumping water from the C-Aquifer, a larger, deeper aquifer used by Flagstaff and surrounding communities. Navajo Aquifer water would continue to be used, however, a fact that Begaye says the company is not advertising.

Grassroots Hopi and Dine’ groups like the Black Mesa Water Coalition, Black Mesa Trust and To’Nizhoni Ani’ are pushing for sustainable energy alternatives. Two years ago, the Office of Surface Mining turned down Peabody’s application for a life-of-mine permit because people flooded their office with opposing faxes, e-mails, and phone calls. Now, a similar application with a different name has been filed and community members are poised for another round.

"It will be a real sad lack of foresight if our tribal governments allow this to happen," says Begaye. "There won’t be coal forever, won’t be water forever.

"What’s happening in my community is happening to tribes throughout the Americas. We need to get the young people from the communities involved, get them educated, bring youth and elders together." Begaye gave a workshop on water politics at the All People’s Power Youth Summit at the base of the sacred San Francisco Peaks near her home in July, then spoke at the Boston Social Forum the following weekend as part of the Water Allies Network, hoping to build bridges with both indigenous and non-indigenous communities and organizers working on water issues. IEN has participated in drafting declarations like the Indigenous Peoples Kyoto Water Declaration, and hopes to create a network for information and support sharing amongst tribes, while tribes make their own decisions.

Battles over water rights are commonplace in the southwest. It’s a "touchy area" according to Begaye, because in western water law, to get water rights, you have to prove that you have a use for it. Sometimes communities have to invent uses like golf courses and green lawns to ensure that the water rights will be there for future generations.

Hydro-electric dams in the northwestern U.S. and throughout the world also create problems. "They build these dams and then water floods tribal lands. Communities are submerged to provide power to cities. The right to fishing is being disturbed."

Then there’s water contamination from power plants, agriculture, and industry. "It makes you dependent on western ways of living. If you can’t get clean water that runs by your house anymore, you have to get it pumped. That costs money and you have to get a job. Companies are really smart about that." The bottled water industry thrives on such demand, and the privatization of water is on the rise. Begaye predicts that companies will soon be trying to buy up water rights from tribes in places like Alaska and Canada to market their water.

"We need to become more grounded in our beliefs of the sacredness of water," says Begaye. "Tribal members need to better influence our governments. We need to bring across that message about its life-giving elements. Hopefully some of the indigenous beliefs about water can be recognized by some of the larger communities, so that respect for water can be upheld.

"We believe that Black Mesa is a female mesa. Where they are mining is her liver, water is her life blood. How am I going to describe to my grandkids what Navajo Aquifer water tastes like? I hope I never have to."