All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.
Two years ago when I enthusiastically agreed to join the Walking Water pilgrimage in California’s Owens Valley, I had only the faintest idea of the enormity and severity of the crisis facing America’s West.Water is life and in places it is running out: in 2012 the US suffered its worst drought in 50 years, with nearly two-thirds of the country facing water shortages, while a year later California’s drought was judged the most crippling in history.
Recent impacts have been devastating, although the drama surrounding the relentless quest for water is already a century old in the Owens Valley. In 1924, with local outrage boiling over, farmers resorted to violence and sabotage to counter the ruthless tactics of the city of Los Angeles, which was intent on seizing water rights hundreds of kilometres upstream.
The California Water Wars inspired the acclaimed 1974 movie Chinatown, starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, and the true story is no less dramatic. It is one of political corruption and intrigue, of billion-dollar struggles over water rights, of ecological and economic disaster – and of dizzyingly ambitious engineering feats as the desert was transformed into a green Eden, at least for a while.
Some would argue that it was an impossible and unsustainable dream, but the reality is that by diverting and damming rivers California became the salad bowl of America, supplying nearly half of all its fruits, veggies and nuts. But has the bubble finally burst, or is it about to?
Now, like almost everywhere else on the planet, we need to to look for new ways of being in relationship with water and each other.
So this was never going to be an ordinary walk, and neither was it going to be one chosen for the most scenic route, although there is no denying the spectacular beauty of a route that follows the natural and man-made waterways to Los Angeles against a backdrop that includes the majestic Sierra Nevada and Inyo mountains, as well as trekking uncomfortably close to Death Valley, one of the hottest places this side of Hell.
Our walk starts at Mono Lake on 1 September and the idea is to go from source to the place of end use and divide it into three sections to be walked over three years, with a band of pilgrims finally arriving in LA around September 2017.
This allows time to build relationships and spark long-term projects along the way, with the LA aqueduct stretching around 223 miles (359km) and linking so many from all walks of life.
You could argue that the timing is perfect. Already 1.2 billion people around the world live in areas with chronic water scarcity, while another 2 billion are affected by shortages every year. By 2025 three in five people may be living with water shortages.
The 2014 Global Water Summit concluded that shortage of water is the biggest challenge the global economy faces. It predicted that everyone on the planet will experience some serious water-related event – a shortage, a flood, an infrastructure failure, interruption to business or economic disruption – within the next 10 years.
So we’ll walk and then sit in circles, learning and sharing in the time-honoured way of our ancestors.
Among us will be members of the indigenous tribes, farmers, environmental activists and hopefully representatives of the authorities that control the supply of power and water.
It is seen as a prayer rather than a protest.
Coordinator Kate Bunney, who has arranged pilgrimages in conflict areas like the Middle East, insists that we are walking for water and not against anything. “It’s not a march. It’s not a demonstration. Walking Water brings together role players from all walks of life – including representatives of the indigenous tribes who are the first people of the land – and hopefully with ancient and modern knowledge we can co-create healthy ways of being in relationship to water and each other.
“Walking Water attempts to connect that sacred path of pilgrimage – our internal relationship to ourselves – with our relationship to our external environment.
“In this sense we walk for the issue of water, we walk with water and with the communities along this path that are so affected by this issue, and we walk towards a change in our acting and thinking towards water on both a local and global level.
“We also walk toward a vision of a regenerated environment, a healthy valley and a self-sufficient metropolis. Our approach is to work in a way that is synergistic, collaborative and future-orientated, revolving around a simple bottom line: for the enhanced protection of all life.”
Helping to set the scene, an 11-minute documentary on the Walking Water website spotlights the issues, captures the beauty of the land and introduces us to some of the personalities involved.
I find it moving and encouraging and it reinforces my belief that we can fix our broken relationship with water and the Earth.
I’m especially touched by the observation of Alan Bacock, water coordinator for the Big Pine Paiute Tribe, who explains: “To prepare for a walk like this is really to prepare for a journey that in a lot of ways is beyond us. Because of that we need to go in prayer. We need to prepare ourselves in prayer and say: ‘Creator, utilise this in the best way possible. Help all of us to be instruments. May none of us be thinking that we are the only aspect that’s needed.'”
Andy Lipkis, a practical visionary and founder of TreePeople which has planted millions of trees in the greater LA area over the past three decades, says that people imagine that because the city is so big: “I’m just a drop in the bucket. But every drop makes ripples. It’s about information, it’s about choice – we always make a difference. But we can’t do it without choosing it, without being inspired. That’s what Walking Water is about.”
“The most important thing,” Kate Bunney says, “is that it is an event that inspires and empowers each of us to become part of the global solution to water management and usage.”
The kind of openness, optimism and trust I’m encountering fills me with excitement and hope.