Thoughts on the Spring Term 2020 Water Justice Speaker Series by Josefa Ovalle
Updated: Aug 9
By including a variety of voices in the Winter 2020 School of the Environment Speaker Series, we were able to hear from professionals working at different sovereign scales of government and beyond. For example, Mr. Code, a public health professional from the Oregon Health Authority discussed results from water services research from other states though the scope of his work focuses within the state of Oregon. Collaborating and learning from other states is crucial in this line of work as the water cycle does not adhere to political boundaries and what is done upstream will affect those downstream. Another interesting example of collaboration was given by Colleen Sanders, a climate adaptation planner working in optimizing indigenous food systems with the Umatilla Tribe in eastern Oregon. Sanders focuses on working with rural and marginalized communities that are sometimes ignored or forgotten in the public health and water access plans made by the state and federal entities. By combining tribal knowledge and land expertise with her own professional expertise, they have been able to reach viable visions and strategies to reach their goals.
Perhaps the most overarching example of large-scale water justice was discussed by Lucas Black, a former United Nations staff member that worked within the UN Development Program environment and energy group. Black's main message was that water is inextricably linked to the global climate crisis and must be addressed accordingly. However, water security and water justice are not fully addressed in the Paris Climate Agreement, though many of the initiatives outlined therein are dependent upon accessible and clean water resources. Overall, it seems that all these varying scales have common goals envisioned and, though a difficult and obstacle-ridden task, through collaborative approaches are working towards making these goals a reality for a better world for future generations
Write one 300 word essay summarizing how the different speakers used the definitions of water justice and water equity depending on their field (e.g., policy, regulation, health, finance, GIS applications, etc.).
Curtis Code from the Oregon Health Authority defines water security as "adequate and equitable access to clean, safe and affordable water for drinking, food preparation, and sanitation and hygiene" as well as a water system's ability to prevent and recover from physical security threats such as chemical, radiological and biological contamination. Thus, from his perspective and vocation, he believes in ensuring access to safe water resources as the main goal in water justice issues. Another Oregonian professional from the Environmental Justice Task Force for Oregon discussed the importance of water justice and highlighted the distinction between justice and charity with a powerful statement: "charity is no substitute for justice denied." From this perspective, the goal is to not only ensure access to potable water to all community members, but also to not use charity as a "band-aid" to cover up the root of the issues at hand.
On the other hand, Robert Figueroa, as a professor in the School of History, Philosophy, and Religion at Oregon State University, looks at water justice from an overall climate justice and climate refugees perspective, where we are seeing the massive displacement water crises and the overall climate crisis is causing around the globe. These displacements are only further exacerbating the already stressed water resources where most of these refugees are having to relocate to, if able to at all. From a global perspective, Lucas Black asserted that water justice and water security is a crucial aspect of tackling the climate crisis thus adequate policies must be enacted to ensure these initiatives can be successful. He also addressed that a bigger challenge remains in properly redesigning investments in water systems and infrastructure in a way that is equitable and not as fragmented as commonly seen today. Listening to the various perspectives of water justice from people in different fields was quite eye-opening and an interesting learning experience.
Josefa Ovalle is a second-year graduate student in the Department of Geography at Portland State University. Having received her BBA from the University of Georgia in 2014, she is highly interested in the economics of ecosystem services. For her master's thesis project, Josefa is currently studying the impacts on water availability and the socioeconomic effects that land-use and land-cover decisions have on communities in southern Chile.