WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Water Wars

Sep 7, 2016

A little over 850 miles west of Macomb a war is being waged over something that is necessary to all life on earth.  Water. 

Water is quite literally everywhere we turn and although 70% of the planet’s surface is covered by water, 97.5% of that water is found in oceans and therefore salty and unfit for human consumption. In fact if all of the planet’s water filled a typical one-gallon milk jug, less than one teaspoon of it would be freshwater. 

Water is indeed a scarce resource.  This valuable resource is being further limited by climate change as global temperatures rise, ice sheets shrink, oceans warm, and glaciers recede.  The largest demand on freshwater comes from industrial agriculture, which accounts for more than 90% of freshwater use each year. The same forces driving demand for food — namely a global population boom and increasing preferences within that population for meat— are placing unsustainable pressure on water supplies.[1]

Clearly we need water to live.  But water is also emotionally and spiritually necessary.  The archeological record tells us that humans around the globe have often viewed water as healing and transformational.  In early Rome, baths were an important part of cultural life, a place where citizens went to relax and socialize. In Ayurveda, the ancient Indian medicinal system and in traditional Chinese medicine, water is crucial to balancing the body and creating physical harmony. Rivers have long been seen as sacred places, and in a number of different religions water has symbolized rebirth, spiritual cleansing, and salvation[2].” 

With water being so important on so many levels you would think that this story would be all over the media.  Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.  With the exception of a “breaking news” report on National Public Radio, Amy Goodman’s coverage of the protests on “Democracy Now,” and a brief commentary by Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC, the American media has given this event little attention.   Coverage outside of the United States is healthier, but for a battle that has been going on for over two years, the reporting has been scant. 

The fact that there is so little publicity is not surprising given who is waging the battle.  You see, the war over water is being fought between the Standing Rock Lakota people and energy giant Dakota Access Pipeline.  The Dakota Access Pipeline is a subsidiary of Energy Transfer.  Energy Transfer is owned by Kelcy Warren, a Texas entrepreneur, who according to Forbes Magazine is worth $4 billion.   This war is not just about a pipeline and water. This war is also about power and privilege in our country. 

The Standing Rock Lakota people, like all Indians in this country, have been discriminated against since the rest of our ancestors set foot on this continent.  Perpetuated by the myth that “no one lived here” before we colonized North America, Indians have always had to live under a different set of rules than the rest of us.  Time and time again the US government has broken its promises to a people whose land we took from them. 

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad
Credit Rich Egger

According to the Dakota Access Pipeline’s homepage, “Protecting landowner interests and the local environment is a top priority of the Dakota Access Pipeline project…we are committed to working with individual landowners to make accommodations, minimize disruptions, and achieve full restoration of impacted land.”[3]  And while this might be true for some people - last year the pipeline was rerouted to avoid the city of Bismarck, North Dakota when its people expressed grave concerns about what would happen to the land and waters around their city should a pipeline rupture – it seems less true for the Lakota people. 

In July of this year the Army Corps of Engineers approved the rerouting of the oil pipeline allowing it to run under the Missouri river close to the Standing Rock Lakota Tribe's reservation.  The protesters, Native and non-Native alike, worry that the $3.8 billion pipeline, which is slated to run through four states – including counties in Iowa and Illinois in our own listening region  – could disturb sacred sites and affect the drinking water.   

In a sign that things could be improving for the Lakota people, on Sunday U.S. Judge James Boasberg of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued a temporary restraining order halting all further construction on the pipeline near the Lakota reservation.  Judge Boasberg will issue a final decision about the pipeline and the Lakota people on Friday. 

Winona LaDuke, and environmental activist of Ojibwe and Anglo heritage writes that this war over water represents “the future of a people. All of us. If I ask the question ‘What would Sitting Bull do?’ — the answer is pretty clear. He would remind me what he said 150 years ago: ‘Let us put our minds together to see what kind of future we can make for our children.” 

Here’s is to hoping that liberty and justice for all does indeed prevail.   

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a Professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University. 

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio.  Diverse viewpoints are welcome and encouraged.


[1] http://www.pbs.org/newshour/making-sense/water-wars-are-brewing/

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2016/02/25/mental-benefits-water_n_5791024.html

[3] http://www.daplpipelinefacts.com/