Learning to test the waters

(Edmonton) Some 250 young activists on campus this week are discovering that when it comes to water issues, we really are all in the same boat.

The youth, attending this year’s Global Youth Assembly at the University of Alberta are exploring the theme “our world, our water.” Andy Knight, chair of the Department of Political Science and event co-chair, says the goals of the assembly, a collaboration of the university and the John Humphreys Centre for Peace and Human Rights, are threefold: educate, empower, act.

“We try to develop themes we think are very important,” said Knight. “Water is a multi-faceted topic. We thought this would garner some interest among the youth and encourage them to take action at home.”

Knight cites a myriad of issues that surround water. It’s a source of conflict, he says. The issues of potability and access to clean drinking water are challenges as are the oceans and the ecosystems found therein that are threatened by man. Knight notes that the issues surrounding water are those that affect and even threaten all of humanity, but are of particular concern to youth, since, he says, “this next generation will have to deal with many of these issues.”

With a number of researchers specializing in water or water-based research, the university seems to be the fitting place to hold this discussion. Knight references the U of A’s many water research projects and the establishment of a new water research chair as examples of the university’s commitment to exploring solutions to water-related issues.

“Having this conference highlights the work we are doing (at the university),” said Knight. It highlights the fact that water and water research are very important subject matters.”

Renee Vaugeois, executive director of the John Humphreys Centre, says that with the passing of a United Nations resolution recognizing access to clean water as a human right, defining this theme was a perfect opportunity to help youth understand the numerous challenges with water and develop a greater awareness of human rights.

“Water is a beautiful metaphor for what human rights are,” said Vaugeois. “The whole idea of human rights, the theory behind it, is that it’s universal, it’s interconnected, it’s indivisible.  Water is universal, it’s interconnected. And it connects to all these different areas of human rights – from health to food security.”

Keynote speaker Fabien Cousteau, an oceanographic explorer and filmmaker, and grandson of legendary oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, says seeing engaged and informed youth who are willing to effect change leaves him hopeful. Cousteau adds that society needs to join the young in finding solutions to the issues around water, and as quickly as possible, because the planet is in jeopardy. Noting that youth, academics and others have come together to explore the issue at the assembly, he says he is reassured that solutions can be found.

“We’re all in the proverbial same boat, we all need to address these issues whether we’re young, old or in between,” he said. “To be able to see these different groups (academics and youth) - that seem like they’re from different worlds – together further proves that we’re all ready to do it.”

The third Global Youth Assembly at the University of Alberta runs from July 28 to 30.