What does water mean to you? Celebrating World Water Day with Autumn Peltier


Access to clean water is a human right – yet globally 2.2 billion people live without safe drinking water, as per United Nations (UN) reports. In Canada, access to clean drinking water is an ongoing challenge that largely affects Indigenous communities. The 2024 water quality in Canadian Rivers report revealed that while 11 per cent of test sites saw an improvement in water quality, 41 per cent deteriorated in quality and 48 per cent saw no change. Mixed pressures from land development, mining, forestry, and increased population density have a negative impact on water quality. Issues like this and water in general were the focus of March 22, or World Water Day. 

World Water Day was first observed in 1993, after the UN 1992 conference on Environment and Development. Since the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) came into effect in 2017, achievement of SDG number six, water and sanitation for all, is a main focus of World Water Day. The theme of World Water Day this year is “Water for Peace.” 

UW’s Water Institute observed World Water Day with a celebration featuring 19-year-old Indigenous rights & water activist Autumn Peltier. In her Circle Talk with attendees, Peliter shared her personal journey and connection to water, how youth can shape the future, how to look after your mental health while doing advocacy work, and the importance of community. 

“No matter what our race or colour is, how rich or poor we are, we all need water. We collectively need to have the same understanding and perspective on it,” Peliter said. 

Peltier, Chief Water Commissioner for the Anishinabek Nation, has been advocating for water protection since she was eight years old and learned about boil water advisories in Indigenous communities. Talking in Fed Hall to an audience made up of university students and faculty as well as local schools, she hoped to create positive change and positive thinking, and help people leave with positive minds. 

“Women have an important and sacred role speaking up about water. In Anishinaabe culture, in Ojibwe teachings, we learn that women are water carriers and that we give life, we carry life in water for nine months,” Peltier shared. “Every single one of you has been born from water —  without water, none of us would be here.” 

She emphasized the power of each individual voice working together in collaboration to advocate for issues like access to clean water, and teaching people the importance of water and the need to respect it. 

“I talk about how this [water access] is an Indigenous issue — really, it’s a human rights issue. This is an issue that affects people globally and in terms of using your voice and not knowing where to start — neither did I.” Peliter shared how her journey began with writing speeches to share with peers and writing to members of parliament. “You can use your voice in any aspect you want to. Speaking up whenever and wherever you can, sharing your ideas and thoughts with people is your first step.” Her advice to anyone looking to advocate for water is to get the conversation started at any scale, large or small, your contributions matter. 

A panel session on securing Canada’s water future occurred in the afternoon of the celebration. The $78-million Global Water Futures program is working to create a legacy in water research. The panel highlighted five prominent UW researchers: Claude Duguay, University Research Chair in Cryosphere & Hydrosphere from Space; David Rudolph, who researches groundwater management; Jimmy Lin from the school of computer science; Merrin Macrae, whose research focuses on hydrology and Biogeochemistry; and Nandita Basu, Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Global Water Sustainability and Ecohydrology. They are focused on addressing critical water security challenges. Threats like droughts, floods, harmful algal blooms, and food insecurity all impact the daily lives of Canadians.   

After the conference I asked attendees: What does water mean to you? 

“Water has been a significant source of peace throughout my life, and I am deeply grateful to the role the Okanagan Lake has had in forming my connection to the land,” expressed Andriy Hrabchuk, fourth-year social development studies student, reflecting on hearing Peltier’s words. 

Benny Skinner, Indigenous research advisor in the office of the vice-president, research and international at UW shared that to them “Water means everything… I come from two great island nations – the Mi’kmaw of Ktaqmkuk and the Kapampangan of Luzon. Water is our way of life, the sound that soothes us, the smell of home. It is what provides us with vitality, and it is sacred to me. I can’t thank Autumn enough for all of the work that she has done to call attention to this incredibly important mission of protecting the water.” 

Beth Grant, a second-year master’s student in social and ecological sustainability, presented her research during the conference as cohort 10 of the Collaborative Water Program. To her, “Water means connection. Water knows no boundaries and it ties all beings together. It is something all of us, human and more-than-human have in common. Many of the places near and dear to my heart are bodies of water and those are my favourite places to connect with friends and family and to reconnect with myself and with nature.”

Ben DePetris, a fourth-year GEM student, echoed this sentiment of connection, “I think of water as something that connects everything else. It’s shared between all life and all places on earth. Which makes it really interesting to look at the various ways it moves and interacts between all of these things.” 

For Mikhaela Timoll, a fifth-year geography and environmental management (GEM) student, “Water is life! It’s where life originates and what sustains life. We look for water on other plants as an indicator of life, that’s how meaningful water is. You can’t live without water. I have a new appreciation for that after world water day.” 

“To me, water has always played an important role in my life. Growing up next to the Susquehanna River allowed me to see the beauty, but also the destructive capacity that water has. Now, studying environmental engineering, water still plays an important role in my life as I think about future water needs and systems,” expressed Lucas Shumaker, a third-year environmental engineering student who presented his wetland focused research at the conference. 

World Water Day is a day to reflect on the global water crisis, our role in water protection and advocacy, and how we can take action to further sustainable water management and access to clean drinking water for all. Remember water, your reciprocal relationship, and your dependence on each other on the other 364 days of the year, too. To reiterate Peltier’s words, “Without water none of us would be here.” What waters do you come from — what lakes, oceans or rivers are a part of your water story? What does water mean to you and how will you protect it?