Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Water, water everywhere?

I am a water person.  Growing up on the shores of a Great Lake will do that to you.  When I walk along a shoreline, paddle a canoe, or go for a swim, I find it to be soothing, an escape from the stresses of work or life.

Yesterday, I went for the last swim of the season at the local community pool.  It was a cloudy day, not the type that attracts a lot of pool-goers.  Which was just fine with me.  I love when the pool is quiet, free of the screams of delight and the “wake” from people jumping off the side into the lane where I swim laps. 

As I glided through the water, I couldn’t help but think how cool and refreshing and comforting it felt.  Cool water is better for swimming laps.  It feels faster somehow.  But I also began to think about the trouble that water (or lack thereof) has caused this year.  As I was swimming, people in states from North Carolina to New England were still cleaning up from Hurricane Irene’s flooding rains.  And major rains are predicted for the upcoming week possibly followed by the remnants of not just one, but two hurricanes/tropical storms.  In the northeast, water is abundant, too abundant in some places.  In parts of my state, August precipitation levels were at an all-time high for any month, ever!

Meanwhile, areas in the south like Texas have not only had an incredible streak of hot weather, but also a severe drought.  The U.S. Drought Monitor ( labels the south as being a D4 level of drought intensity (“exceptional”).  Funny choice of terms since I typically associate the word "exceptional" with good things, like a job well done.  According to the Lower Colorado River Authority, the ten months from October 2010 through July 2011 were the driest for that 10-month period in Texas since 1895, when the state began keeping rainfall records. During that same time period, Texas has been battling its worse wildfire season in history with over 3.5 million acres burned already and new fires blazing as of yesterday.

Occasionally, there are news reports of the extreme drought in the Horn of Africa, especially all the starving refugees from Somalia.  The water levels at Kenya’s power dams were so low that electric companies had to begin rationing electricity at the end of July leading to blackouts.  What little coverage there has been, the reports make it sound like this is a new problem.  Two years ago, my Maasai friend from Kenya told me about the problems that the already long-running drought was causing for pastoralists, their livestock, and wildlife.

Check out the graphic at this website ( to get a sense of the number of people who don’t have “reasonable access to safe drinking water” (defined as the availability of at least 20 liters per person per day from an improved source within 1 kilometer of the user's dwelling).  How many of us would walk this far for drinking water when we can just carry our little plastic bottles around?  Sigh.  Do you feel at least a little guilty if you water your lawn or wash your car?  I do neither.

Northern Africa has been in the news a lot this year due to the political uprisings.  Just recently, while some celebrated the rebel take-over of the Libyan capital or pondered over the newly-found documents that show ties between Libya and the CIA, many may have missed the fact that people in Tripoli were becoming desperate because Gadhafi loyalists had cut off water supplies to the city.  Cutting off food and water is not a new tactic of warfare, but I can’t imagine what that must be like.  Remember, this is a desert region with a coast along a sea (i.e. saltwater).

Only 1% of the world’s freshwater (~0.007% of all water on earth) is accessible for direct human use. "Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink" says Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  Yet in this state (and others), millions of gallons of water are mixed with unsafe chemicals and blasted down into the Earth to release tiny bubbles of methane gas.  Yes, we are willing to sacrifice molecules that are essential to life, H2O, to extract some more fossil fuel.  And who says we aren’t addicted to oil and gas?

Recently, while discussing the protests in Washington D.C. about the tar sands pipeline (a protest really about climate change and the President's broken campaign promises), my students asked if there was any issue that would cause me to engage in civil disobedience.  Without hesitation I replied, "..if they ever were to start piping water from Lake Superior to the southwest."


  1. There are limits. Water is one of those things that needs to stay far from the grasp of corporate competitiveness for the benefit of human life and community. Thank you for standing up.

  2. Ah, but all around the world, corporations (often from the U.S.) are buying water and polluting it from countries that are desperate for financial resources. Our clothing companies indirectly support this and waste extraordinary amounts of water purchasing cotton grown in areas that are not suitable for this crop.

  3. Such a terrific integration of the personal with solid, well-conveyed research. (I know exactly what you mean by the community pool on cloudy days - my favorites.)

    Some of my students got together and campaigned against the sale of bottled water on our campus, and won! The students viewed it as morally inappropriate to bottle and sell something everyone should be able to have for free.

  4. Trileigh,
    Great to have such an important student campaign. Kudos to your students. We haven't been able to stop the sale, but a group arising from our climate crisis course in which students pay a fee to offset their carbon for the semester, bought real water bottles and designed a "Green Hounds" logo (a greyhound is our school mascot). These have become the trendy thing to purchase and carry around and this year the even installed the water fountains designed for refilling bottles. Small steps, but important ones.