Water, Water, Everywhere

Almost one billion people in the world lack access to safe drinking water, and around 39% of the global population does not have access to ‘improved sanitation.’ By ‘safe drinking water,’ I mean ‘water which, under optimal conditions, is unlikely to make you sick.’ Water, lack of it, and control over it have been issues for millennia and these issues are becoming more pressing as the world’s population expands and develops ever more thirst for water.

Statistics from the United States Geological Service (USGS) for 2000 have some very revealing information about water use. Although these numbers are for the United States, not the world in general, water usage patterns are pretty steady, especially in industrialized nations. Here in the US, 48% of our annual water usage goes to thermoelectric power. Irrigation eats up 34%, 5% goes to industrial uses, 11% goes into the ‘public supply,’ and less than one percent is used in households.

What these statistics tell us is that water usage is a very complicated matter.

For most of the people reading this, water is probably a bathroom or kitchen tap away and there is a reasonable probability that the water out of the tap is potable, although it may be filtered for flavour. That water is likely sourced through a municipal water supply or a well/spring, in the case of people living in rural areas.

Things like community wells, rainwater collection tanks as a sole source of water, collecting water from rivers and lakes, and collecting water at community taps are familiar ways of getting water for much of the world’s population, but not so much for many of my readers. Yet, framing the water issue solely in these terms makes safe drinking water seem solely like an issue in the developing world. In fact, battles over water rights are also an issue in the Mediterranean, where water supplies for agriculture and domestic use are hotly contended over and land can become valueless because no water rights are attached. Access to water is a perennial issue.

It is notable that although the bulk of the population in most industrialized nations is believed to have access to safe drinking water, these numbers are much lower in the developing world, highlighting the gap between rich and poor on an international level. That gap doesn’t stop there. Within individual countries, wealth is a huge determining factor when it comes to water availability. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, being wealthy means that you are twice as likely to have access to safe water.

Threats to the water supply occur at a number of levels. On a fundamental level, water may simply not be available; it is being used for other things, it was never there to begin with, it is supplied from somewhere else and the supply may not be consistent. Of the water that is available, contamination can become a factor. Industrial pollution and poor control of sewage are two issues which can affect the safety of a water supply. Or, it’s available, but only to certain people; in refugee camps, for example, people may only be able to access water supplies by trading food, belongings, or sex. People who do not have these things to offer or are unwilling to offer them go without.

The water issue is multifaceted. We need to improve sanitation and improve accessibility. That is indisputable. But we also need to look at the social, cultural and economic factors which surround water supplies and we need to deconstruct some of these things. This issue is not as simple as ‘well, make more water available!’

Often, the approach to this takes the form of fixing things for people, rather than empowering them to address the situation themselves. If we dig more boreholes, surely the problem will be solved! In fact, this is not the case; who will maintain the boreholes? Who will ensure that the boreholes are not contaminated? Who will collect water at the boreholes every day to bring home (hint: it will probably be women)? Who is responsible for keeping the water clean once it is out of the borehole, for sterilising it if it is contaminated, for keeping it in clean containers? What will happen if someone takes control of the borehole and starts demanding payment for water?

Digging wells is not the solution. More wells may well be necessary, but simply focusing on how to get water ignores the issues people encounter when they need to access water. Take poverty, for example. If you are poor, you are more likely to live in a neighborhood without running water. That means that you will have to go to a community tap, well, or borehole to get water. You will probably have to wait in line. If the line is too long, you will have to leave so that you can go to work. Even if you get to the water source, you need containers. You need to trust that other people have not contaminated the water supply, that your containers are clean. You need to haul those containers home.

Digging a new well does not address this situation; it might bring a well closer to your home, or shorten lines a bit by making a second well available, but it doesn’t address some of the underlying issues which will not go away, like the need to make a choice between going to work and getting water for the day. Teaching people to boil water is not helpful when they have limited access to fuel and they need to be able to cook food, too. Sinking a new borehole is not helpful if the water table is already dangerously close to depletion.

Solving the water issue requires thinking about the larger issues which surround it. Water is a vital commodity, and like any commodity, it is controlled by some and longed for by others. Figuring out how to bridge that gap is much more complicated than simply trying to increase water supplies.