Water Crisis: The Good, The Bad and the Possible

The struggle so many have finding access to safe water is something we all need to understand.

  The only thing worse than assuming you could get the better of suffering, I began to think (though I’m no Buddhist), is imagining you could do nothing in its wake. And the tear I’d witnessed made me think that you could be strong enough to witness suffering, and yet human enough not to pretend to be master of it. Sometimes it’s those things we least understand that deserve our deepest trust. Isn’t that what love and wonder tell us, too?

-Pico IyerThe Value of Suffering


Yesterday, I talked about the brilliant book, The Spiritual Life of Water, and the magic inherent in this special substance. Literally dependent on it for life, we need this precious resource to survive. The proof is in the numbers: about 75% of the world’s surface is covered with it and our bodies are filled up anywhere between 50% to 70% with aqua goodness. We are water, within and without, bound together physiologically and energetically. Drinking it replenishes us in the most natural way possible by putting back what is already inside of us.

But an important clarification needs to be made here. While drinking clean water recharges our bodies, drinking unclean water can cause significant harm. This has an incredibly large impact on human beings, particularly those living in developing countries: “[The water and sanitation] crisis claims more lives through disease than any war claims through guns.”

Homeward bound in the district of Buikwe, Uganda, boys transport water on their heads from a well.

Water crisis

Want to hear some more shocking facts? An astounding 1 in 9 people lack access to safe water. This works out to be more than 2.5 times the entire US population, bringing the total number of people to approximately 1.1 billion. In developing countries in Africa this translates into serious health problems and death for so many. For those of us living in countries where easy access to water is an expected part of everyday life, we often find ourselves taking this luxury for granted. Meanwhile in other parts of the world, this integral life force is causing so many others to struggle grievously, both emotionally and physically. Statistics like these will hopefully help to encourage us not only to practice daily gratitude for our water, but to also use it more efficiently and with careful consideration.

What exactly is the water crisis? Hydrologist and professor at University of California-Irvine, Jay Famiglietti shares his personal definition in his fantastic TEDx talk on the subject:

“In it’s simplest form, the global water crisis is the inability to provide a reliable supply of potable water to villages, towns, cities and regional populations, all over the world. Globally, about a billion people around the world lack reliable access to potable water.”

To clarify, potable water essentially means drinking water that is safe for humans to consume and use.

By considering this global issue and taking the time to really sit with its many difficult and harsh realities, perhaps we can begin to create a more grounded perspective on our own comfortable lives and, by extension, make the appropriate changes to improve the situation for everyone. If we begin to understand the dire, life-threatening challenges that others around the world are facing right now, the small things we can do in our own lives might seem pretty easy in comparison. With a bit of empathy and motivation, we can take tiny steps of positive action to create a world of possibilities rather than a mess of dead-ends.

Everyone’s energy counts

Those vulnerable little beings we call children are especially affected. I found this particular sentence disturbing, to say the least: “Lack of access to clean water and sanitation kills children at a rate equivalent of a jumbo jet crashing every four hours.” In rural areas of some African countries, women and children trek up to six hours from their village home to find water to bring back. Unfortunately, this water is rarely safe.

Instead of answering its true calling as life facilitator, here water becomes a beast with which people in some parts of our world must do daily battle, rarely ending victorious.

Close your eyes for just a moment and imagine it’s you making the daily exhaustive trek for unsafe water each day. Imagine it is you watching your children become ill and pass away. Imagine it is you who grew up in a place where this just happens to be the way things are. Imagine…

By closing our eyes and putting ourselves in another’s shoes, we can begin to practice empathy.

We all deserve to thrive

When we see the human race as one, we understand that what happens to one effectively happens to all.

Happily, there are many organizations taking positive action as I type. Among them is an NYC-based organization named charity: water, which also happens to be Soma’s partner in giving back. Their supportive collaboration has manifested into Soma Thrive, the company’s charitable community-based project. It works like this: when you purchase a Soma water filter, Soma automatically makes a donation on your behalf to help people in developing countries gain access to clean water, with the help of charity: water. This is a fantastic example of the type of change we’re able to make without much effort at all. When we make conscientious product purchases from companies that value sustainable design and social entrepreneurship, we’re not only helping the environment but we’re also helping people overseas who are struggling. And this is just the innermost ring when it comes to the type of proactive ripples we can create.

The honest truth

Honesty is a quality that I, like most people, really value. With all of the information available online, it’s sometimes difficult to figure out the truth about complex global situations. That’s why I really appreciated Jay’s talk on the subject, which I first introduced above. When asked about the reality of the water crisis, he shared his honest thoughts:

Can we end the global water crisis?…No, we can’t. I’m sorry. It’s too big for humanity to beat down and conquer. We’ve passed too many tipping points – with climate change and with population growth and with human behavior – to be able to turn an extremely critical situation around.” Now, before we put our head in the sand, read on.

“So, why bother taking action?  Because we still can make a difference! I truly believe that (…) we can manage our way through to ensure a sustainable water future.” For everyone who might feel a bit overwhelmed with the magnitude of the crisis, or like there’s nothing we can do about it because it’s just so giant, here is faith from someone who certainly knows a thing or two about it.

We need more information

Jay also makes a great point that we simply do not know enough about water to be rushing headlong into the environmental and economic choices we make. (‘We’ being, in many cases, governments and corporations.) Our reflexive actions towards water are based on short-term financial gain rather than long-term environmental sustainability. This point is frequently brought up in discussions on the crisis, including in documentary films like the The Last Ocean. This film is about the preservation of the Ross Sea, a sacred natural place regarded as earth’s last near-pristine body of water. In the Ross Sea, fisheries are poaching thousands of toothfish without first gathering adequate information about this special ecosystem. They do not understand the consequences of their actions.

Like the fisheries, for our own sake, and that of the planet, we need to look ourselves in the mirror and ask whether we can truly stand behind our everyday habits regarding water. Are we making responsible choices? First and foremost, are we even aware of the situation? Do we have enough information to understand the impact of our choices? If the answer is no, then it is up to us to seek and conquer the world of water for the sake of ourselves and for our planet.

As Jay pointedly declares, “Today I challenge our government and others around the world to do the exploration that needs doing. If water is in fact the new oil, let’s finally do the exploration with the same vigor.”

Do we really have all the information about what’s going on beneath water’s wavy, sunset dappled surface?

Happy surprises

This is not to say that it’s all bad news. Encouraging discoveries are being made all the time: just the other day a brand new water source was found in Kenya! Of course, along with change comes challenge, since new experiences require re-thinking old strategies and habits. For example, Kenya will need to consider creating a strong infrastructure through which to support this new resource, in addition to protecting it from foreign investors like China. Overall, however, this is absolutely fantastic news that will surely bring much hope to the people of Turkana who have struggled to find sources of potable water for many years.

Hearing surprises like this reminds me that we just never know what’s right around the corner. Who knows what other possibilities will emerge in the future! In order to create true motivation for change, we definitely need to make the effort to look at the whole picture. Making room for the positive areas, as well as the obstacles, can bring us the rejuvenated energy necessary for answering reality’s wake-up call.

Bringing it back home

I want to bring this around full circle with Pico Iyer’s idea that the only thing worse than thinking we can avoid suffering is thinking that we can’t do anything about it. He finds more truth in this by digging into the etymological meaning behind the words:

“As a boy, I’d learned that it’s the Latin, and maybe a Greek, word for “suffering” that gives rise to our word “passion.” Etymologically, the opposite of “suffering” is, therefore, “apathy” (…)”

Suffering is a passionate ordeal, to be sure. But so is everything in life worth experiencing: cooking a mouth-watering meal, making love with your sweetheart, raising a child, creating a successful business, writing a book, painting a picture, reshaping the world — all of these things are borne of passion from deep within. While this type of passion is perhaps difficult to explain scientifically, it is true to the core nonetheless. If we want, we can choose to meet the water crisis with passion rather than apathy.

As Jay says, it is absolutely possible for us to improve our current water situation to the point where it is sustainable. What a wonderful goal we can all embrace universally! In upcoming posts, I’ll be talking about some easy ways we can all make changes in our homes, our cities, and beyond, to help facilitate this great change. We’ll look at the tiny steps and small shifts in habits we can make to do our part in changing the earth and ourselves for the better.

For now, though, I simply want to encourage awareness and increase recognition of this important problem that we are all facing, to vastly varying degrees. We must begin to approach it in the same way we would any other challenge in life: through recognizing and acknowledging the problem; by extending gratitude for all that we do have; and by having sincere empathy and compassion towards the obstacles, challenges, and plights of those who are struggling deeply. Having the courage to be with these feelings and sit with our raw awareness of reality as it exists is a gentle beginning to our planet’s long-term healing process.

As the Dalai Lama got out of his car, he saw hundreds of citizens who had gathered on the street, behind ropes, to greet him. He went over and asked them how they were doing. Many collapsed into sobs. “Please change your hearts, be brave,” he said, while holding some and blessing others. “Please help everyone else and work hard; that is the best offering you can make to the dead.” When he turned round, however, I saw him brush away a tear himself.

- Pico Iyer, The Value of Suffering