Water Is Life—Nibi onje biimaadiiziiwin—A Call for Blue Ecology

Rainforeset Stream-2012

Creek in BC rainforest (photo by Kevin Klassen)

Water Is Life

No one can deny that water is life, but to the Anishinaabe Indigenous peoples it is much more than a biological imperative; it is Anishinaabe law. “Of course we cannot survive without water and our bodies are made up of water,” says Aimée Craft, assistant professor of law at the University of Manitoba in her article in the March/April 2017 Issue of Water Canada. But water is much more than this; “water literally has a spirit to which we owe our lives.”

Water is a living entity.

“It is the sacred centre from which all other activities radiate, write Kim Stephens and colleagues in Water Canada. They explain that the warming of the planet’s atmosphere is speeding up and disrupting the water cycle and promoting an unstable environmental swing of extremes: flood, drought, fire, wind, and extreme cold events.

Climate change is about water.

Globally increased temperatures are melting Arctic ice & permafrost; they are shifting water currents, causing extreme environmental conditions of drought/flood and storms.

Atmospheric RiversScientific American - January 2013

“Atmospheric rivers”—narrow corridors of concentrated water vapour in the air—can either provide much needed water to a dry area or cause flooding and devastation. A single plume can carry more water than the Mississippi River at its mouth, writes Christopher Joyce at NPR. Until recently, California depended on these high altitude super-highways of water to hydrate their thirsty land; now these rivers are coming in too frequently and in a torrent. California has turned from dry summer and wet winter to parched / on fire and deluge. As our global temperature steadily warms (along with our steadily increasing atmospheric carbon), more water can be carried by the atmosphere. Atmospheric rivers are warming up and will increase, with potential devastation.

As climate changes, the seasonal rhythms of water will shift. For instance, In British Columbia the snow in the mountains may melt earlier and more quickly and summer low flows may be drier and occur more early.

“Western science is not wrong; it is just not complete. It does not account for water as part of a living ecosystem.”—Stephens et al. 2017

Understanding Water Through Blue Ecology

“The situation calls for a whole-systems approach to managing the water balance distribution,” write Stephens et al. “The journey to a water-resilient future starts with Western science acknowledging water for its central functional and spiritual roles in our world,” write Stephens and colleagues, who promote the interweaving of western science with traditional First Nations teaching and local knowledge. They call it “Blue Ecology” and it has five guiding principles that align with a whole-system approach: Spirit; Harmony; Respect; Unity; and Balance. It starts with understanding how water’s rhythms are changing, globally and locally.

What Stephens and colleagues are talking about is the need for an ecological approach to viewing any environmental event. All these events are connected and that connection is through water. Water is ubiquitous and inhabits literally everything, from humans to rocks. Water is also in constant motion, from subtle microscopic Brownian movement to a major hurricane storm.

Michael Blackstock in the BC Journal of Ecosystems and Management urges a change from our traditional goal of “sustainable development” (for a high standard of living for our children) to a new goal of “sustainable survival”—to plan and behave in a cross-culturally collaborative manner that ensures children, generations from now, can survive with dignity in a world where respect for water and our climate is ubiquitous.

“Each stream has its own history, flavour, and voice, and yet it has the potential to form a larger whole.”—Michael Blackstock, 2017

We Are All Water Keepers

Jacinda Mack, born of the ancient Nuxalk and Secwepeme Indigenous peoples and living in modern day British Columbia, tells us that, according to her Indigenous teachings, protecting water is traditionally a woman’s role. “Women and water are life-givers,” says Mack. “Young women receive names bearing the word water, and are taught important water ceremonies. As clean water is becoming scarce, and treated as a bottomless well for industry to use, abuse, and pollute, our women are standing up and our men are standing beside us—to protect the sacred.”

“As women,” Aimée Craft adds, “we are responsible for water; because we are the carriers of birth water. We acknowledge that the water flowing through our lands is the blood of Mother Earth (ninge aakiin). Out grandmothers collectively hold these water teachings.” To the Anishinaabe, “Water is an independent legal actor.” Craft reminds us that when we alter our water, such as adding chemicals or diverting it, we change our relationship with it.  According to the Anishinaabe nibi inaakonigewin, altering the flow WaterProtectors-WaterCanadaof water (and by extension the entire water cycle) is a breach of sacred and natural law.

“We stand where our ancestors stood, where our children and grandchildren will stand. Clean water will be protected. We are fighting for our very survival and yours.”—Jacinda Mack, 2017

Honouring Water

“Water is the most life sustaining gift on Mother Earth and is the interconnection among all living beings.  Water sustains us, flows between us, within us, and replenishes us.  Water is the blood of Mother Earth and, as such, cleanses not only herself, but all living things.  Water comes in many forms and all are needed for the health of Mother Earth and for our health.  The sacred water element teaches us that we can have great strength to transform even the tallest mountain while being soft, pliable, and flexible.  Water gives us the spiritual teaching that we too flow into the Great Ocean at the end of our life journey.  Water shapes the land and gives us the great gifts of the rivers, lakes, ice, and oceans.  Water is the home of many living things that contribute to the health and well-being of everything not in the water.”—Assembly of First Nations

The National Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers



Blackstock, M.D. 2008. “Blue ecology and climate change.” BC Journal of Ecosystems and Management 9(1):12–16. url: http://www.forrex.org/publications/jem/ISS47/vol9_no1_art2.pdf

Craft, Aimée. 2017. “Nibi onje biimaadiiziiwin.” Water Canada, March/April Issue.

Grey Ellis, Emma. 2017. “California Needs Atmospheric Rivers. But Like, Not This Many.” Wired Magazine, February 23, 2017.

Hamann, A. and T. Wang. 2006. Potential effects of climate change on ecosystem and tree species distribution in British Columbia. Ecology 87(11)2773–2786.

Hansen, J. 2003. Can we di use the global warming time bomb? Natural Science Web site. url: http:// naturalscience.com/ns/articles/01-16/ns_jeh.html

Joyce, Chirstopher. 2017. “New Research Shows How ‘Atmospheric Rivers’ Wreak Havoc Around the Globe.” NPR. url: http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/02/20/515838078/new-research-shows-how-atmospheric-rivers-wreak-havoc-around-the-globe

Mack, Jacinda. 2017. “Water Protectors.” Water Canada, March/April Issue.

Natural Resources Canada. 2007. Climate warming maps. Web site. url: http://atlas.nrcan.gc.ca/site/ english/maps/climatechange/scenarios

Stephens, Kim, Michael Vlackstock and Bob Sandford. 2017. “Interweaving Indigenous knowledge and western science to make water-first decisions through Blue Ecology.” Water Canada, March/April Issue.

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

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