Somewhere, some waterbody is part of who you are.
Some people, when they hear those words, are immediately transported. They go to the lake where they jumped off the same dock, summer after summer. They go to the river that guided them on their first canoe trip.
Other people find themselves on the hardened shoreline of a post-industrial city, where they can see - but never touch - the water in front of them. That waterbody is also part of them.
Others, still, are marked by the ghosts of waters past. Their rivers run backwards, re-routed for dams or relief from sewage pollution. Their rivers run dry, sucked up to quench the thirst of neighbours far upstream. The absence of water marks them.
The secret to knowing and safeguarding the world’s waters is in those memories, in the subtle “watermarks” each one of us carries through life.
It is tempting on days like today, World Water Day, to try to teach people about water. To want to make them understand why water is important. To want to inform or educate. “Resist,” I told myself this morning.
Because it doesn’t matter that Canada has ⅕ of the world’s freshwater or that the Great Lakes are the largest freshwater system on earth. No impressive-sounding fact or statistic about water is going to convince someone that water is worth safeguarding.
In fact, there is very little about “water” that captures our imaginations at all. It’s a substance. Two hydrogen molecules and an oxygen molecule, stuck together.
When “water” is in its place, like a lake or an ocean, it becomes real to us. It becomes a waterbody: the Don River, the Fraser River, Lake Winnipeg, the Bay of Fundy, and so on. And waterbodies, with their movement and their fish and their birds and their plants and the communities they support, they are the backdrops for our lives.
The night we learned this
A few years ago, we brought the documentary Watermark to Saint John, New Brunswick for a public screening. In the darkened theatre, Jennifer Baichwal, Edward Burtynsky, and Nick de Pencier sat on stage taking questions.
The late Gord Downie watched from the seats with our president, Mark Mattson.
The moderator asked the filmmakers to share their own memory of water. They each spoke. And we watched as each speaker was transformed. Afterwards, we stayed up all night talking about the experience.
As Gord said to Jennifer:
When that kid blindsided you guys with the question; 'What is your first memory of water?" You three became, more comfortable, more at ease maybe and gave three distinctly different and eloquent responses that everyone could relate to.
Mark and I looked at each other at that moment. We surmised that everyone in that theatre was probably privately summoning, conjuring up their own answers to that question.
We fell in love with water stories that night because we know they matter more than all the stats and facts in the world. Stories have the power to inspire. They have the power to make “water issues” personal. They represent the reason you care.
The truth is, you’ll protect that local lake or river or creek or beach because it’s the place you learned to swim. It’s where you had your first kiss. It’s where you went to cry your eyes out when your heart was broken. It’s where you laughed with your friends on a perfect summer afternoon. It’s where you discovered there is courage, buried deep inside you.
Your waterbody is the place you go to in your mind when you think of where you’ve come from, your family, your culture. It’s rarely the most beautiful, special, pristine, unique, or perfect place - scientifically speaking. Those things don’t matter. Your waterbody is yours. That’s what matters.
When you protect your waterbody, you protect yourself
We started archiving people’s water stories two years ago. We called the initiative the Watermark Project, in honour of that night in Saint John. Each Watermark story describes someone’s personal connection to a waterbody. Each one acts as a testimony to the importance of water in our lives.
Collectively, these stories help us to better understand where, when, and how people are experiencing water. Each serves as a reminder that laws and policies do matter. You can only learn to fish when there are fish to catch and habitat to sustain them. You can only paddle a canoe when waters are navigable. You can only learn to swim when beaches are public and clean.
They remind us that our work to protect water matters. Because the stories that we share today are shaped by decisions made by people who came before us. If you have fond memories of your waterbody, thank the people who connected you to water. Thank the people who made choices that protected that water. If your story is one of loss or struggle, your Watermark reveals how choices people made years ago diminished quality of life today. The state of our waters is rarely an accident.
Even the traditional environmental work we do to monitor our waters, hold polluters accountable, improve law and policy is really about Watermarks. We know that the memories people make tomorrow are shaped by our actions today. We get to decide what stories they tell by making choices that will safeguard - or harm - our waters. That’s power.
Some waterbody shaped who you are. Which one? How? Share it with us, and help to shape the future.