Water Defender

By Bowdoin Magazine

Attorney Luke Wilson ’06 is ensuring a future where water is more than a resource—it’s a right.

Luke Wilson '06 in front of the courthouse in a photo by Candice Kalb.

Wilson lends his voice to advancing water security in the halls of the US Supreme Court—and to musical pursuits. At Bowdoin, in addition to majoring in government and French, he sang in Chamber Choir, the Meddiebempsters, and a production of Into the Woods. He continues to participate in a chorus in DC.

What draws you to the work that you do?

Water is fundamental to every aspect of human life and existence. By protecting water from overuse, pollution, and poor management, you can have a profound and immediate impact on people, relationships, the environment, community and country relations, and economies. For many years, water has fallen out of the public consciousness. Humans around the world prioritize so many things above water, to the point where so many drinking water delivery systems are in disrepair and on the verge of collapse, water resources are declining, and water pollution is increasing. So much of my job is reminding people that water matters and creating the rights and protections we need to protect our intergenerational access to water.

When water systems fail, societies fall; when systems work, they thrive. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

How did your career unfold?

I think there was always a current pushing me toward water, though it took time for me to see it. I have to credit Bowdoin with setting me on the course I am now. The international law class I took with Allen Springer was the starting point of it all, and the Volunteer Lawyer’s Project in Portland helped me to understand how poverty in the United States deepens every strain and pain. After law school, I was a law clerk at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, where I first cut my teeth on a dispute over water.

It was after that, when I was working on international arbitration cases alongside human rights cases, that I realized just how much water is the hub—it’s at the center of every aspect of life. Whether it is protecting a fragile peace or preventing conflict, prosecuting war crimes or ecocide, protecting human rights or investment, or protecting health and happiness, water is at the center. When I had this realization—and saw how much more of a need there was to protect water security—I saw my future path with clarity and started the Center for Water Security and Cooperation with a colleague. Eight years later, and the need has only gotten greater. 

You were a government and French major, with a history minor, but I saw that you said an international law class was your favorite at Bowdoin. Do you use French in your work in any way today? How does international law figure into your work?

Bowdoin’s imprint flows through every aspect of my work. I often think about the “Offer of the College” and about how much it represents what I’ve been able to experience—I’ve had the privilege to work around the world, to connect nature as part of an effort to cooperate to common ends, and to feel grounded intellectually and emotionally wherever I go.

I must highlight all of my French professors at Bowdoin in particular for their impact on my development. I use French to communicate with colleagues in sub-Saharan Africa frequently. When you meet people, the language helps to open doors and build trust. These professors broadened my horizons in thinking about humanity’s challenging corporeality, documentary storytelling, and French and Francophone politics and culture. In some ways, those courses—even though they were primarily language courses—have been more connected to my work than anything. They taught about systemic cultural changes, about colonialism, about fear of the unknown and the unexplainable, and about how societies work and communicate. It’s a reminder that languages carry with them a history and meaning that is far greater than just a means to communicate; studying those languages can be the key to unlocking parts of the world.

My government professors and history professors—particularly those who taught me about law, leadership, the value of non-state actors, and the history of conflict points around the world—equally opened my eyes to the challenges of changing minds and defining justice.

International Law—my first class at Bowdoin—has guided me from the start. I now teach international law on the side at the George Washington University (where I refer to Professor Springer as my students’ “great-grand-professor”).International Law has been a constant in my life since that first course.

I also credit my sociology courses with giving me a taste of the sensitive research on poverty that has become a larger part of my organization’s work recently. Advocating for those struggling with intense poverty and disease is a large part of fighting for human rights for water; every class I took has made me the lawyer and advocate I am today. Finally, I took an epidemiology class whose lessons about pathogens and public health have continued to weave into my work. I am constantly surprised by how much I use what I learned at Bowdoin to connect different aspects of water’s challenges.

You’ve described access to water as being central in conflict as well as civilization. Do you see that happening now?

We’re seeing attacks on water more and more in conflicts around the world, and we’re not doingenough to stop them. Denying any person water, whether as punishment or collateral damage, isabhorrent, inhumane, and illegal. We seem to forget that, and we certainly do not shout from the rooftops as much as we should “This is one of the worst things a person can do to another. Cut it out.” So many people—in war zones or not—live on fetid, polluted, or diseased water. Somehow, we don’t ever seem to make it a priority.

What inspires you?

I am inspired by human resiliency, by the ability of so many to fight for what they deserve even in the face of overwhelming odds. I am constantly humbled by those around me who are fighting for water security, particularly those fighting under repressive regimes. Environmental defenders are constantly being targeted in countries where we work, and being able to lift these advocates up, to give them the tools, and to believe that the progress we’re making together will change the world—that’s what inspires me every day.

What brought you to Bowdoin? What was your experience at the College like?

I loved how Bowdoin was both connected and cloistered. I could volunteer in Portland and have one-on-one debates with my professors. I could be in a production of Into the Woods, sing in Robby Greenlee’s Chamber Choir and with the Meddiebempsters, and sit by the ocean or sit in the shadows of the pine trees all in the same day. Bowdoin allowed me to connect every part of myself to what the College had to offer, and to challenge myself in myriad ways.

I feel like every year at Bowdoin was unique. One of the most valuable aspects was working in the Office of Alumni Relations and being a part of the Meddies, which allowed me to connect with alumni going back to the 1930s. Hearing their stories and about their lives—at the College and after—set a high bar for me to meet. When I was an admissions interviewer as a senior, I found myself looking in applicants for future Bowdoin students I would want to meet again as a future alumnus. I wanted to find people who would be willing to take advantage of all that Bowdoin—and Maine—had to offer. 

Is there something about the work you do that others would find surprising?

I think the sheer scope of water insecurity—not having reliable access to enough clean water for basic needs—is a shock for many. Our best estimates are that two billion people worldwide and two million people in the United States struggle to get, have, and keep water every day. This number is astounding, and it’s only getting worse as climate change and poor management lead to droughts, empty or polluted aquifers, and economic pain.

What’s worse is that even in the United States water is not a guaranteed right. This thing that every human needs to survive, that we rely on to fight disease and prevent pandemics, can be taken away or otherwise denied. This is what we fight forto make sure this doesn’t happen.

Is there something about you that others might find surprising?

I’m still holding out hope that the Bowdoin-grown, student-written-and-directed musical Home makes it to Broadway, where I can reprise my role as the kindly New Jersey-proud patriarch with his affectionate cat, Shnookums.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Music was a big part of my Bowdoin experience, and I sing with a chorus now, which exposes me to an exceptional variety of voices and music. Besides that, I enjoy teaching international law and visiting some of the beautiful national parks with my partner and my dog, River. I also try to devote as much time as I can to family.

Favorite Bowdoin memory? Or best thing you learned at Bowdoin?

One of my favorite Bowdoin memories is singing in the Chamber Choir in the Chapel in the winter. The music, the warmth, Robby Greenlee, and the setting made for a magical experience.

Luke Wilson ’06 is cofounder and deputy director of The Center for Water Security and Cooperation and teaches international law at the George Washington University, where he earned his JD.

Bowdoin Magazine Winter 2024


This story first appeared in the Winter 2024 issue of Bowdoin Magazine. Manage your subscription and see other stories from the magazine on the Bowdoin Magazine website.