Thred: Can you both tell us a bit about what you do and why water is the focal point of your journey as an activist?
Bodhi: Water is life. We are inextricably connected to the ocean. I like to say that ocean health is human health and vice versa. Water connects us all to one another, and it connects us to the elements. Everything that enters the ocean comes from upstream. Rivers, lakes, etc. all flow into the ocean, which makes up 70 percent of our planet. So for me, water is everything, and I’m sure Nyombi would say the same.
Nyombi: It is true that water is life, and everyone needs it. But in [African] nations, we face challenges with access to it. When we have water, it is very polluted.
Uganda depends on Lake Victoria, but when you visit today, you will find the lake has become toxic. People catch diseases as a result of our water not being treated well.
When I visit countries like the US or UK, I feel like I shouldn’t use water unless it is boiled because that’s how I’ve lived. People laugh and say, ‘No, the water is safe! You can use it,’ but here in Uganda, it’s not safe. In some areas of the country, water is not even accessible.
Bodhi: In Vancouver, they’re building the new Trans Mountain Pipeline, sponsored by the government of Canada. It isn’t as environmentally friendly as we might like to believe, or as they like to portray.
At COP, we’re advocating to have youth negotiators as an official part of the delegation. We want to stop the pipeline from being built because it will poison our water sources.
There’s the liberty of being able to turn on the tap and have drinking water, but often drinking water is not a true liberty no matter where we are.
The Global South suffers heavily from water inequity. Here in Sharm El-Sheikh, we have to get plastic water bottles every time we want to drink. It’s disappointing, but it’s the reality. COP is being hosted in the desert, so water is not a liberty. It’s not something we should waste or take for granted.
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Thred: What are the biggest challenges we face in regard to water conservation and making clean water accessible for all?
Nyombi: In the Eastern regions of Uganda, water is accessible. But in the North, it is not. Climate change has seriously impacted the amount of rainfall there. Northern Uganda is now so dry that you have to dig more than 30 feet to reach water. These boreholes dry up because of rising temperatures. Then access to food is threatened because crops can’t grow on dry land.
Challenges also differ in separate regions. In Central and Eastern Uganda, water is there, but it is polluted.
We need to tackle this before we leave COP. Companies like Coca-Cola have produced tons of plastic and haven’t cleaned it up. If you saw our lakes, you would stop letting Coca-Cola use our water because it is not well treated. They use chlorine, but sometimes chlorine is not enough to treat it, and we end up with diseases. So the key challenges are pollution and climate change in Northern Uganda.
Bodhi: We see Coca-Cola, Dasani, and Nestle, as well as other big, fossil fuel-backed organizations taking public water that belongs to local people. They’re bottling it and reselling it to us at 100x the price. So not only is water unjust, but it’s extremely unequal.
One solution to water equity is the use of natural filtration systems. Young ocean activists from Tanzania told me about a natural filtration mechanism that’s like a Brita, but for their lake. These natural filtration systems reduce contamination and other things negatively affecting our water and lives.
Natural solutions are important, especially when there are already so many human anthropogenic threats to water.
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Thred: Could you share some of the mitigation strategies that you hope to see implemented to improve water-related issues?
Bodhi: Greenhouse gas emissions are the root of this issue. It’s the key driver of climate change – causing drought, flooding, and more. In Vancouver last month, we experienced drought and then short, heavy rainfall. Our salmon, which are essential to Indigenous Peoples, weren’t able to swim up the rivers because they dried up.
I’ve learned a lot at COP about coastal water management. For instance, where to put dams, how to use energy from dams, how to open dams or break dams – it shows how water blocking is essential. I’m sure Nyombi knows more than me on this subject, I’m still learning a lot.
Nyombi: I haven’t been part of the negotiations at COP, but I’ve seen discussions on improving water accessibility. In dry regions, water is available nearby, but many are lacking the infrastructure to transfer it. Underground pipes are a solution to local boreholes which end up drying out. Still, transporting water isn’t enough.
We need to ensure the water is safe by reducing toxins at the source. We also need also to protect our natural ecosystems so that rainfall becomes consistent, and water doesn’t disappear.
As Bodhi said, companies like Coca-Cola are using our water. This could be easily shared with the rest of the country. But although corporations have mastered how to transfer water into their factories, they don’t help the people. It’s time to stop these companies and phase out plastics because, as long as we use plastic, we will have contaminated water. We are going to lose a lot of life in and around the lake.
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Bodhi: There are great organisations, namely, Break Free From Plastic Pollution and the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, involved in the policy side of plastic mismanagement and petroleum use reduction among the biggest polluters.
That’s the root of the problem, but we can go to the mitigation stage with river catchment systems. There are programs called Sungai Watch in Bali and Bye Bye Plastic led by Melati Wijsen. They’re catching huge amounts of plastic before it enters the ocean.
Ocean-based removals are good too, but we need to stop plastic before it gets downstream and causes further damage.
Nyombi: We also have to make sure that the laws we put in place start working from today.
In Europe, I didn’t see these companies selling plastic bottles. In Africa, we wonder: why is it so hard to go back to how it used to be? Uganda used to get drinks in glass bottles back in 2008. I was young, but I remember. Today, plastic is everywhere. Companies say that they’re making it easier to access products: ‘when you want a drink, just come and get the plastic!’
This sounds easy, but the repercussions are real. People have no choice but to throw plastic away and it ends up in the lake. We have to ask why companies aren’t phasing out plastic in Africa when they are doing so in Europe.
Bodhi: We always hear the notion that demands consumers to be responsible. But polluters – large fracking, oil, and gas companies – are funded by multinational industries like Coke, Pepsi, and Unilever. They are the source of the problem, and it’s not on consumers to carry that burden.
So I challenge everyone to release that burden and focus on making systemic changes. You can learn from the young activists at COP, Indigenous water stewards, water protectors, and more.
Young people need to make demands in our local communities about what we want for our people.
A great constituency for people to join is Youthify. They focus on water policy, equity, and climate solutions. Or join Ocean Uprise and become equipped to take action to protect your water spaces and your community.
Nyombi: I want to add that behavioural change in individuals is a notion proposed by polluters so that we care, even though they don’t.
Sometimes we cannot stop buying plastic products because we need them. Companies that have the power to change are prioritising money over our lives.
That’s why I say polluters must pay. We have to hold every one of them accountable.
I’ll push until they phase out plastics because people are facing cancer in Uganda. We have set up fundraising for people to be taken abroad for treatment. But again, companies don’t support these initiatives, despite being the ones causing them. We have to fight polluters by all means.
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Thred: Egypt has a huge stake in the Water Pavilion this year at COP. How hopeful are you that this connection will push the agenda for making clean water accessible?
Bodhi: In Egypt, they use desalinization, where you take water from nearby oceans and remove the salt to get fresh water.
Water catchment systems like these are really important. We need to focus on solutions, nature-based solutions, as well as community-led, African innovations. This will help us improve access to fresh water and improve our resources.
Clean water should be a universal right. It’s needed by every single person on this planet.
Most importantly, if you’re not in college or in Egypt right now, there are many ways to get involved. It’s so inspiring to learn from others. I will end by saying that water is life, water is us, and we are water.
Nyombi: I don’t think results will come from COP27.
What the media doesn’t show you is that the leaders and 600 fuel lobbyists are having parties and drinking every night. In the morning, they talk about what happened last night. This is the conversation happening on the ground here. So if we don’t see anything changing, don’t be surprised.
The leaders who have been sent here, they are not working on our agenda.
When I got to COP, I wanted to get involved, but for the first two days, I was not allowed. On the third day, I said to one of Uganda’s government delegates: ‘I would like to be part of the negotiation. Can you please give me a spot?’
She let me in immediately. When I walked in, I asked: ‘Why is it that the disadvantaged people are not among the people negotiating? Why are they not working with the people on making this report?’
The moderator said, ‘You will come back when this report is published.’ So even when we are here, it still feels like our voice doesn’t matter. They know what they’re doing. They know they don’t need to include us for them to release whatever they want.
I have many friends doing work on the ground and that’s where my hope is, but not here.
What I see is a party. To my friends – and all young people – you are the ones showing me real actions. We are actually trying to clean up this mess. That’s where I find a lot of hope.