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VOICES

Remembering Nelson Mandela As Voice For Environmental Justice

A subway rider reads a newspaper featuring news of the death of South African leader Nelson Mandela, Friday, Dec. 6, 2013, in New York. South Africa's first black president died Thursday after a long illness. He was 95.

CREDIT: AP/John Minchillo.

Today, the world mourns the loss of former South African President and anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, who passed away yesterday at age 95.

Mandela was a global icon for equality, including being a voice for environmental justice.

I had been watching the CNN coverage of his death for two hours when suddenly, my 91-year-old grandfather started calling my name frantically. I ran down the stairs to find him out of bed waiting with his walker and said,”The world is a much sadder place.”

A tear welled up in his only seeing eye and his voice broke as cried, “He was a very inspirational man, we should all strive to be like him.”

Environmental injustice impacts the millions who suffer from limited access to water resources, industrial manipulation, and government neglect. It affects the poor, the marginalized, and often falls along racial lines—which is not just limited to the third world.

Poverty, the environment, and civil rights are all tied together, which Mandela recognized:

“We in South Africa have ourselves faced hard questions and had to make hard choices in this regard. We know that political freedom alone is still not enough if you lack clean water. Freedom alone is not enough without light to read at night, without time or access to water to irrigate your farm, without the ability to catch fish to feed your family. For this reason the struggle for sustainable development nearly equals the struggle for political freedom. They can grow together or they can unravel each other. Threats to our governments in the century ahead will come from poverty, if anything.”

Mandela, a Nobel Prize Laureate, used his voice to draw attention to the growing water crisis in many developing countries. At the 2002 Earth Summit, Mandela demanded that clean water access and sanitation is a basic human right, and should be a universal goal on each nation’s political agenda.

“Access to water is a common goal. It is central in the social, economic and political affairs of the country, [African] continent and the world. It should be a lead sector of cooperation for world development,” Mandela said. “No water, no future.”

Mandela had a right to demand environmental justice.

Nearly 3.5 million people die each year from either water, sanitation, or hygiene-related causes, and nearly all of these deaths occur in the developing world.

This year, the United Nations released their latest IPCC report on climate change, which predicts drastic changes to the water cycle around the globe—including increased desertification in already vulnerable areas.

My grandfather, who survived fighting in a world war and moved through several continents, is of the remaining few from Mandela’s generation—a generation that witnessed the whirlwind of change that carried the world out of suppression and imperialism into what we know it today.

While my grandfather remembers the horrors of a very different world, I am of the privileged many Millennials who can thrive in the new age. While the world mourns a leader, now it is our responsibility to take up what he has left for us. While it may not be as prevalent as apartheid, environmental injustice is just as debilitating to the millions who experience it.

Environmental injustice can be found in nearly any field—medical, global health, civil rights, and conservation—so many young professionals are needed to lend their resources.

Mandela’s life exemplifies how a single man can change a nation; now imagine how a generation could change the world.

Alexandra Branscombe is a reporter with Generation Progress. Follow her on Twitter @alibranscombe.

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