Inaugurated in 1993, World Water Day on 22 March shines a light on the importance of water in our lives – to inspire action for the billions of people still living without safe water.
The distribution and protection of healthy water is a matter of justice across and between species, an issue that a group of researchers at the University of Sydney is now taking up in the Multispecies Justice project, one of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences' six key FutureFix research themes.
Water increasingly links species in everyday acts of care that are multiplying with climate change. This is reflected in the Koala Research at the University's School of Life and Environmental Sciences – the project aims to provide water to koalas affected by droughts.
With the disturbing images of the fish kills in the Murray Darling River system still vivid in our minds, the 2019 theme takes on a special meaning for Australians. This water tragedy makes it untenable to ignore the multiple forms of life that are getting left behind in the ecological violence perpetrated in managing water.
What is at stake goes beyond concerns of human water needs. This summer’s tragedy is a powerful reminder that water connects us all – across species – in complex and increasingly vulnerable waterscapes. Both animals and people are harmed by the damage we inflict on the water processes that sustain our lives: the slow-moving crisis of shrinking rivers, the insidious poisoning of lakes, devastating floods, or the alteration of the planet’s circulations of water.
The fate of other species matters for our lives in multiple ways, whether through the alarming scale of aquatic species’ extinctions and the vanishing of wetlands, or the increased abundance of so-called pests, parasites, algae or pathogens. Human communities that live in closest contact with other species are often those who are the most exposed to water degradation.
These are the issues at the heart of my research on equitable water sharing across the human/non-human divide. My project seeks new ways of bringing interspecies concerns to bear on water development and the management of water systems. I am researching the island-capital of the Republic of Kiribati to explore human-animal water relations.
In this case, it is a domesticated species – the pig – that survives alongside people in a delicate and fraught balance with dwindling freshwater sources. Coexistence with pigs is an integral part of people’s wellbeing, dignity and identity in Kiribati. Therefore, delivering and using freshwater are necessarily activities not just for humans. Yet the animal side of water demand is too often overlooked when official water-related decisions are made, to the detriment of people, pigs, and the broader environment.
Despite those constraints, there are equitable forms of inter-species sharing of fresh water. "Leaving no one behind” requires taking seriously the interspecies nature of what is often thought to be an exclusively human domain.
Today, as the fish kills in the Darling River demonstrate, opening our understanding of those left behind to other species can be a good starting point to finding better ways of inhabiting our blue planet.
Hélène Le Deunff is a PhD candidate in Environmental Humanities in the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry at the University of Sydney.