My name is Amy Hersh and I am an intern with Puget Soundkeeper. I will be completing my Capstone Internship for University of Washington’s Program on the Environment throughout the fall and winter. I am so happy to be a part of such a successful and impactful nonprofit, and wanted to share a story of mine in this newsletter.
This past summer I spent seven weeks in the vast and diverse country of India. One month of my time was spent participating in a Social Justice and NGO activism themed study abroad through the UW’s Comparative History of Ideas (CHID) and Honors programs. We stayed in the metropolitan city of Bangalore, in a state called Karnataka, located in the South. Following this program, I spent the next three weeks traveling around the country, from South to North, staying in places like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Delhi, and as far north as the Himalayan hill stations in Shimla, Manali, and Darjeeling.
One thing I can say about India is that environmental issues experienced by the people there are extremely apparent. There is sewage flowing next to you in a gutter, rivers lined with discarded clothing and garbage, a giant unsorted landfill located one hundred yards from a waterway, and cities with privatized lakes, requiring an entrance fee to use that public resource. Observing this explicit pollution and exploitation was jarring for me. It’s not that issues like these do not happen in the US; it is just that here they are so much more concealed from the public eye.
When I returned from India to begin my internship including boat and kayak patrols with Soundkeeper, it was bizarre to me how clean everything seemed to be in comparison. I would still see plastic bags trapped in rocks next to Gasworks, or dozens of bottles and cigarette butts tangled in the bushes behind a marina. Every once in a while I would pull out a microwave sized hunk of Styrofoam that was shedding its tiny white beads into the Duwamish River. This was disheartening, but the amount of pollution I saw in the Puget Sound seemed small in comparison to the brown river of sludge I had seen drifting by that massive landfill outside of Delhi.
I felt this way until I learned more about the type of pollution that water bodies like the Duwamish have and continue to experience. Not all of it is apparent to the naked eye. Arsenic levels, PCBs, and heavy metals are a hazard not only to the aquatic species that inhabit the river itself, but also to the human population that lives just next door. Pollution in the US can and has resulted in horrible consequences for our waterways, and although the infrastructure in the US might be better organized than in India, cleanup processes here often get caught up in jumping through bureaucratic hoops. India’s evident pollution concerns are likely tied to struggles with poverty, mass population growth, and the rise of industry. But for some reason, I can’t decide what is scarier to me, seeing the pollution unhidden and uncensored in front of me, or wondering what is in the water that seems so much more harmless and clean.
Regardless of the type of pollution or exploitation of water rights a region might be experiencing, there is always someone that is working to improve it. My program in India learned from an NGO called Environmental Support Group, which has done amazing work preventing privatization of lakes in Bangalore. There are also six different waterkeepers in India, working to enforce clean water laws and protect their waterways.
Water rights are universal, and it seems that no matter where we are in the world, when it comes to protecting our natural water bodies, we all speak the same language. No matter how daunting an issue, all of us can make a difference in the health of our natural waterbodies, and in turn, make a difference in the lives of the natural and human environment we are inherently tied to. Start small, start big, start wherever you like. Caring is the first step.