thirsting for justice

Anil Naidoo reports on the changing tides of the global right-to-water movement.

photos by David Godichaud

My earliest memories are of life in a bleak land with little water. The remote interior of Apartheid South Africa in the early 1960s was an unforgiving land, barren and parched from lack of rain. When it did rain heavily, there were flash floods as little of the precious water would sink into the sun-baked earth.

In my village, sanitation was a crudely dug hole in the yard. I have vivid memories of going to the toilet at night with an adult wielding a shovel by lantern light. The single windmill in the village provided the luxury of pumped well water. The water did not pool or flow on the surface naturally in this harsh land, it needed to be pulled up from the depths.

The name of the village was Omdrai, meaning U-turn in Afrikaans. The story was that the place was so desolate that the trekkers took one look and immediately turned around. My family lived there until we fled to Canada when I was four years old. Life in a new culture was not without its challenges, but I have never forgotten the struggle of surviving without access to enough water in Africa. These memories give me strength as I now have the honour of fighting the battle for water as a human right on a global level.

I humbly serve as part of the global water justice movement. It was an accidental occupation, but in life are there really any accidents? After fleeing repressive South Africa, my family ended up in northern Alberta, and from there I spent the rest of my childhood just outside Calgary. Rural southern Alberta shared similarities in mindset to conservative elements in South Africa, but it was truly a world away. I never did fit into the dominant ideologies of boomtown Calgary, centred around consumption and business. I tried Ė I worked on the oil rigs and then went to business school, but it never clicked. I struggled to find the right path for myself, to be true to myself, and finally left to roam the world, ending in silent meditation at an isolated Buddhist monastery in Thailand.

Upon returning to Canada, I chose to work as an advocate and counsellor to addicts and street people in the inner city of Edmonton, those most powerless and marginalized. As challenging and fulfilling as that work was, I knew there had to be another level to seek change, ideally before crisis. So I moved to Ottawa and ended up working in the House of Commons. I soon found out there was little room for positive impact, even at that exalted level. Power was entrenched. I became more attuned to grassroots activism and the positive role that social movements can play in societies. I joined the Council of Canadians and shortly jumped to the global arena with the Blue Planet Project, working directly with Maude Barlow, a pre-eminent water warrior.

Now, almost five years later, I have witnessed and lived so much. I am often back in the village of Omdrai, and I desperately want the village, after all these decades, to have hope and dignity. I donít want the girls to still be carrying water on their heads and missing school or for children to be defecating in holes at night. So still we struggle and our work in the global justice movement toils on.

Next to the birth of my two children, the opportunity to do this work is the closest Iíve come to experiencing the sacred. Water is at the root of many sacraments and spiritual practices around the world. This most essential element connects us to creation, to nature and to each other Ė this is the profound power of water. Our relationship to water in some ways defines who we are and will portend the next chapter in our development as a species.

Anil Naidoo is a global water activist and organizer of the Blue Planet Project. To find out more about Anilís work and how you can support the water justice movement in Canada and around the world, please go to

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