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8th February 2024
Our water is under threat. A new global initiative wants to find solutions

By Isaac Phan Nay News, Climate Solutions Reporting, Urban Indigenous Communities in Ottawa February 5th 2024

As climate change threatens global water systems, a new research initiative aims to leverage Indigenous expertise to manage cross-border water resources.

Climate change puts people’s access to water in jeopardy. Extreme weather events like floods and droughts are becoming more frequent and extreme, damaging infrastructure and affecting water quality. Often, rivers, lakes and bodies of water affected by these crises cross international borders.

Now, researchers across North America are coming together to help communities adapt. The new Global Center for Understanding Climate Change Impacts on Transboundary Waters is a team co-led by researchers from the University of Michigan and McMaster University. The team will work with Indigenous people to protect bodies of water that cross international lines - starting with the Great Lakes.

Dawn Martin-Hill, a McMaster University researcher and member of the Six Nations of the Grand River, said for time immemorial, Indigenous people have known the environment is an important indicator of the health of the natural world.

“The environment is always a metric for wellness, which health researchers are just now beginning to grasp,” she said. “Water is precious. Water isn't just water, the way the West looks at it as a resource… It impacts our lives in every conceivable way.”

Last year, the National Science Foundation Global Centres — an initiative of science authorities from Canada, Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. — granted the research team $3.75 million in funding. The centre launched in January. Gail Krantzberg, a McMaster University engineering and public policy professor and centre co-lead, said the group will research how to make communities more resilient to climate change.

“Our aim is to improve our understanding of how severe storm events are going to affect [the Great Lakes],” she said. “It's a blend of advancing new science, fine-tuning models, working with communities to understand their needs and then getting our scientists and engineers to address their needs.”

The centre will be working closely with the Six Nations of the Grand River near Caledonia, Ont., and Red Lake Nation in Minnesota. Through previous research, Martin-Hill found that First Nations, Inuit and Métis groups often lack sensors to monitor the quality of their local water sources.

The University of Michigan and McMaster University have launched a new global centre for climate change that aims to incorporate Indigenous knowledge to address water crises across the world.
“There was no data. They don't have sensors for reserves,” she said. “I found that to be incredibly distressing.”

Martin-Hill said she expects to equip Indigenous communities with better gear to monitor water and find ways to make the resources climate-resilient. Martin-Hill hopes the research will help nations protect their water in a way that’s meaningful.

“[We will] be developing the centre so that more Indigenous people can better monitor and manage their water and do so in a way that allows them to fight for access to clean water,” she said.

Krantzberg said the centre will expand its research to other countries after focusing on climate resilience in Canada and the U.S. Martin-Hill added international collaboration practised by the new centre is critical to respond to climate-driven threats to water — especially when watersheds like the Great Lakes cross borders.

“We can do whatever we want on this side, but when they're not following any rules ... all the work to clean up the Great Lakes can be undone so quickly,” Martin-Hill said. “So governance and law are critical to the water discussion in every way.”

Isaac Phan Nay / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative