The Yukon River is one of the largest and cleanest in North America, but it’s far from pristine.
In recognition of World Water Week the Beringia Interpretative Centre hosted a screening of We Live By the River.
The film, produced with funds from the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Yukon River Inter-tribal Watershed Council, chronicles the efforts of the grassroots indigenous environmental movement that is working to clean up the river basin.
“People started noticing people getting sick, lots of cancer especially,” said Carl Sidney, who introduced the film.
Sidney worked on the watershed council since its inception 13 years ago, and currently sits on its executive.
“We just wanted to get it cleaned up,” said Sidney. “We started with just 14 indigenous groups, but today it’s over 70 strong.
Because the Yukon River never saw the intense industrialization that has degraded other watersheds, it is considered relatively clean.
When the film was shown in Hungary at a conference on the problems facing the Tisza Watershed, the images of the Yukon River brought many people to tears, said Sidney.
“They’d never seen clean water in their lives,” he said. “They only heard stories about clean water.”
While it may seem clean in comparison, a century of human settlement, mining and military activity has degraded the river.
The film documents the work that the council is doing in partnership with the US Geological Survey, to teach the local indigenous communities to scientifically monitor the health of the river, and deal with municipal problems like sewage treatment.
The Canadian side of the Yukon River is in much better shape than it is in Alaska, said Sidney, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
“There’s a lot of military dump sites all over the place,” he said. “We’ve identified them, now we’re just going to dig them up.”
Just how long that will take, and how much it will cost won’t be known until it gets underway, said Sidney. And the Canadian government doesn’t seem that interested in helping,.
“We hardly get anything from our government,” he said. “I think it’s because our water’s considered pretty clean.
“But there are still these dump sites that need to be cleaned up.”
After the screening Sidney had several people approach him and express their gratitude for the council’s leadership in reviving the watershed.
Getting people to care about the health of the Yukon River isn’t a tough sell, said Sidney.
“We all need water to live, we’d die without it. All these concerns are everybody’s”
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