This story is part of Headwaters, a series on the future of our most critical resource
Robyn Hamlyn is used to getting her face slapped – only not by her best friend. The Kingston high-school student and her pal, Jamie Knapp-Mcneely, signed up this fall for kickboxing lessons. They love it, "except for the bruises and sore knuckles," Ms. Hamlyn says, and earlier this week her friend threw a punch that she failed to block, catching her full on the check.
Usually Ms. Hamlyn, a teenage activist, is dodging blows in municipal council meetings, letters to the editor or in a rather churlish newspaper column dismissing her as a naive youngster who couldn't possibly know the realities of the world.
Strange then that Youth-leadeR.org Magazine, an on-line publication dedicated to the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, would call her "one of the most important people on the planet."
She has, after all, just turned 17. She's crazy for soccer, loves hanging out with her friends listening to music and watching favourite shows such as CBS's Criminal Minds police drama. But she's also a water activist and has been since her Grade 7 teacher showed the class a documentary called Blue Gold: World Water Wars. The film dramatically shows how much of the world is potentially threatened by water shortages.
What, she wondered, did this have to do with Canada? Her home was on one of the Great Lakes. The Rideau River was nearby, dozens of lakes within a short afternoon drive. But something triggered Robyn Hamlyn's stubborn streak that day and she decided she would act – she would, there is no other way to put it than in her own words, "try to change the world."
On her mother Joanne's advice, she wrote to the mayor of Kingston, Mark Gerretsen, and Mr. Gerretsen, now the Liberal Member of Parliament for Kingston and the Islands, agreed to see her.
Slightly panicked that she, as a 12-year-old, wouldn't know what to say, she contacted documentary director Sam Bozzo, who helped connect her to the Council of Canadians. The council's chair, Maude Barlow, had written the book that inspired the documentary, and Ms. Barlow advised her to push for Kingston signing up as a "Blue Community."
Blue Communities is an initiative of the council and the Canadian Union of Public Employees, and advocates a three-point commitment that includes the banning of plastic water bottles from public facilities, publicly funded and operated water systems and a declaration that access to drinking water is a fundamental human right.
Shaking, the youngster appeared before council but found her nerve just in time to make an impressive presentation. Kingston had already banned the bottles and had its own water system – but council passed the human-rights resolution.
She then began educating herself on water. A UN website informed her that 700 million people in 43 countries are short on water, with estimates of 1.8 billion dealing with water scarcity by 2025. The journal Nature Geoscience has said that the drought experienced in western North America this past decade is the worst in 800 years. Canada's abundance of water will hardly go unnoticed if conditions continue to worsen. Wars of the future, many believe, could very well be fought over access to water.
Ms. Hamlyn has been very busy in the leadup to the UN Climate Change conference, which starts in Paris on Monday.
So far, she has made 29 presentations to councils, with the Ontario communities of Kingston, Ajax, Bancroft, St. Catharines, Thorold and Welland all fully embracing the Blue Communities concept, while 11 others have passed one or two of the three resolutions after hearing her out.
She wrote to then-prime minister Stephen Harper but felt she was "blown off" by the government response to her, which she says was essentially that she shouldn't worry herself about it. She is planning to write to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this week and hopes for a more open response. She is also lining up sponsors and speaking engagements with councils and service clubs that would take her across the country in 2017, Canada's sesquicentennial year.
None of this has endeared her to the Canadian Beverage Association or giants such as Nestlé Waters. They often make their own presentations to these councils, and it has happened they've been there at the same time. Relations are cordial, but she can certainly be described as annoying to them.
"I'm flattered," Ms. Hamlyn says of the counterinitiative of the bottlers. "Those big companies trying to stop a 17-year-old girl from going and talking to councils about making changes. Whenever I think about it, I think about what Maude [Barlow] once said to me – 'Serious people have serious enemies.'"
The bottled water industry is indeed serious, and can claim, using examples such as the Walkerton tragedy of 2000, that their water is safer than tap water, that the bottles are recyclable and Canadians tend to recycle well. If vending machines are not going away, better surely that someone buys healthy water than sugar-loaded pop. Bottled water is also crucial in emergency situations, much of it supplied through the Red Cross from charitable donations from the bottlers.
"All Canadians should be engaged in water sustainability," says John Challinor, director of corporate affairs, Nestlé Waters Canada. While he holds nothing personal against Robyn Hamlyn, he says he does not believe she has the facts correct.
In a newspaper column published a few years ago by an intern at Environment Probe, the attack was much more personal, dismissing the human-rights argument outright and saying, "Maybe we shouldn't leave the destiny of our water in the hands of a 13-year-old." She has been called a "Trojan horse" that is being used by CUPE and the council to front a political campaign disguised as an environmental initiative.
But Robyn Hamlyn, now 17 and very much able to fight for herself, is nonplussed.
"Water is my life," she says. "To function we need water. And I want to make a difference. Besides," she adds. "the Trojan horse won the war, didn't he? So it's a pretty good nickname, isn't it?"