“The Fierce Urgency of Now” - Waterkeeper

“The Fierce Urgency of Now”

By: Marc Yaggi

Letter from the Executive Director, Marc A. Yaggi.

Rashema Ingraham’s grandfather was a fisherman on Bimini, the westernmost of the roughly 700 islands that make up the Bahamas. As Lauren Evans writes of Rashema in this issue of Waterkeeper Magazine, “Growing up, she and her two sisters spent a lot of time at his house, which was 200 feet from the bay and just 70 feet from the ocean.

“Rashema was seven years old the first time she accompanied her grandfather to fish in his handmade boat, which is when she became aware of the vast underwater world right outside his home. They were close enough to shore that he was able to maneuver the boat through the water using only a pole, prodding the bottom that lay just 10 feet below the surface. She gazed down into the limpid waters, where she saw schools of fish, a lemon shark and a nurse shark gliding near the boat.

“For Rashema, the more time she spent examining the living things around her, the more she fell in love with them, and, she says, ‘the more aware I became of their fragility. I thought, someone’s got to stand up and fight for this incredible place.’ Rashema decided that she would be that person.”

Her fascination with the natural world continues and, in her dual roles as Bimini Coastal Waterkeeper and executive director of Waterkeepers Bahamas, her concern for it has only grown as she confronts sea-level rise and the other environmental challenges confronting the Bahamas.

As a kid, nothing in school interested Kemp Burdette as much as working his way up eastern North Carolina’s rivers and cypress swamps. His scholastic record suggested…something other than academics. Like the Navy, where he qualified as a rescue swimmer and learned to jump out of a helicopter into rough seas and extract crashed pilots from their sinking planes.

Post-Navy, he decided that he had something to prove academically, and enrolled at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. He won departmental scholarships in history and geology, and his senior honors thesis was published in a highly respected academic journal.

This helped Kemp win a Fulbright Scholarship, which took him to his next port of call: Newfoundland, where he studied the crash of the province’s fishing industry. Its waters were once so rich with fish it was hard to sail through them, but ever-larger ships and their nets depleted the fishing stocks, devastating the local people and leaving them with little but alcohol, drugs, and stories of better days.

It was then, Kemp recalls, that he decided he had to fight to protect what he loved. And there was nothing he loved more than his native state’s Cape Fear River and its watershed. Today, as the Cape Fear Riverkeeper, he is fighting a host of threats, including massive pollution from ballooning industrial pork and poultry operations, and from coal-fired power plants.

Growing up in Beijing during the tumultuous years of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, Yongchen Wang found a needed respite on trips to a lake at a nearby park where she would go with her father and brother.

“It was an important time that influenced me,” she recalls. “I became very interested in the rivers, the trees and the birds.”

As Eugene K. Chow writes in his profile of Yongchen, “When she grew up to be a reporter, her passion for environmental activism was re-awakened. It fully blossomed in 1988 when she worked on a story about the trees in Beijing’s Xiangshan Park, where every autumn locals gathered in large numbers to marvel at the changing colors of the leaves. But, she observed, this annual ritual was beginning to take a toll. When she visited the park she saw the trees had been badly damaged by people trampling on the roots, pulling off leaves, and even breaking off entire branches. This sight left a deep impression on her.

“‘That was the first time I saw nature destroyed, and I realized that it was not only for humans — that we have to share nature with the birds and the trees.’ It was at that moment that she began to think that she had to do something to protect the environment.

“‘As the Beiyun Waterkeeper,’ Yongchen says, ‘I consider it my duty to be a voice for China’s rivers and for the natural world, because, in spite of their enormous importance to China’s, and the planet’s, future, they cannot speak for themselves.’”

Legendary singer-songwriter and activist Pete Seeger once observed, “The world is going to be saved by people who fight for their homes, whether they’re fighting for the block where they live in the city or a stretch of mountain or a river.”

If there is any one thing that characterizes Rashema Ingraham, Kemp Burdette, Yongchen Wang, and the other Waterkeepers you can read about in this issue, it is their passion for their home places and their resolve to fight for them, no matter the personal costs. It’s a characteristic they share with every Waterkeeper on the planet.

This was certainly the case in 1966, when a group of fishermen on New York’s Hudson River banded together to take a dying river back from polluters and restore it for the people. First, as the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association, and later, as Hudson Riverkeeper — the world’s first Waterkeeper organization — they patrolled the river, identified pollution problems, and forced those who caused them to begin cleaning up their messes. Thanks to them and the laws they helped enact, today the Hudson River is recognized as an international icon of ecosystem revitalization.

And today Waterkeeper Alliance is a global organization uniting 350 Waterkeeper groups, operating in 46 countries on six continents and employing nearly 1,200 advocates movement-wide. Waterkeepers now patrol and protect nearly three million square miles of watersheds around the world, serving approximately threequarters of a billion people — and counting — and as our supporters and donors increase, our reach continues to grow.

But as proud as we are of our success, we know that the challenges are rapidly escalating. Most of us take clean water for granted, yet our species is squandering and destroying it at a frightening pace. Every day two million tons of sewage and industrial and agricultural waste are discharged into the world’s waters, and today more than two billion people worldwide don’t have access to drinkable water. More than three million children under the age of five die annually as a result of unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation, and more than half the hospital beds in the world are filled with people suffering from waterborne diseases.

It is a wonder to me how, given our species’ utter dependence on water, we can be so cavalier about climate change and the way water is wasted, polluted, and misused. Isn’t the case for clean and abundant water so obvious that it needs no defense or advocates?

Hovering over us all is what Pope Francis has called “the existential crisis of climate change.” And climate and water are deeply interconnected. Climate change is altering the chemistry of our oceans, the character of our coastlines, and the timing and intensity of rain and snow, wreaking havoc around the world.

It is a wonder to me how, given our species’ utter dependence on water, we can be so cavalier about climate change and the way water is wasted, polluted, and misused. Isn’t the case for clean and abundant water so obvious that it needs no defense or advocates?

But it does, and, make no mistake about it, humanity has the ingenuity and ability to solve these crises. At Waterkeeper Alliance, we believe that highly trained, effective local leaders, such as the world’s Waterkeepers, are critical to this work.

The Waterkeeper movement was built on the conviction that change starts at the local level. Decisions about vital issues like energy sources, transportation options and land-use are most often made at the local level, and it is there that they can be most effectively addressed. Local actions that involve shared responsibility rather than a top-down imposition can be tailored to the people and culture of the community, and make it easier to hold decision-makers accountable.

I’m inspired by the Waterkeepers around the world who, for lower pay than they could command in the private sector, and often at risk of their safety, fight daily for their beloved waterways.

Let me share just a few examples of the difference Waterkeepers are making:

  • Columbia Riverkeeper in Oregon has combined grassroots organizing with savvy legal strategies to defeat proposed fossil-fuel export terminals in America’s Pacific Northwest.
  • Cabo Pulmo Coast Waterkeeper in Baja, Mexico stopped a 30,000- room mega-resort that would have threatened the Sea of Cortez, which Jacques Cousteau once called “the aquarium of the world.”
  • Chattahoochee Riverkeeper’s advocacy in Atlanta, Georgia has resulted in more than $2 billion of investments to restore a river that had become a drainage ditch for sewage, to a thriving community resource.
  • Middle Huai River Waterkeeper in China helped secure the closure of three chemical companies in Huaihe, helping to mitigate the health problems of more than 1,000 villagers. The group’s truly heroic efforts were featured in a documentary film, “The Warriors of Qiugang,” which was nominated for an Oscar.

Multiply these examples by a thousand and you’ll get an idea of the Waterkeeper movement’s impact.

Based on our firm belief in the power and efficacy of grassroots leadership, Waterkeeper Alliance has made a commitment that aligns with the UN’s “Sustainable Development Goal for Clean Water and Sanitation.”

We’re committed to having, before mid-century, a Waterkeeper in every habitable watershed on the planet. But our advocates need you to help, and I encourage you to think about why you should. Why is clean water important to you? I bet, for many of you, it is a treasured beach or body of water that nurtures your soul and brings you happiness and peace — a place that, I hope, you will refuse to stand idly by and watch as it is sacrificed to the profits of the fossil-fuel barons or destroyed by plastic pollution.

When you think about why it is important to you, I guarantee that you will become more engaged and inspired.

In another time of crisis, Martin Luther King, Jr. called America to conscience, and his words reverberated around the world. On one occasion, he said, “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”

Now is the time to stand shoulder to shoulder with your local Waterkeeper Warrior to help save our blue planet.