Wednesday, September 23, 2009

the worth of water

A famous man once quipped, "When the well's dry, we know the worth of water." That man was Benjamin Franklin, writing in his 1746 edition of Poor Richard's Almanack. For a guy who lived 260-odd years years ago, Franklin sure sounds like he knew a lot about the year 2009. That's because the state of the world's clean water supply today is so dire, it's becoming inevitable that an all-out water war is likely to come to pass very soon. You think running out of oil is going to be a crisis? Oh, it will be. But it'll be nothing compared to the very real—and already growing—problem that a lack of clean freshwater will present to the human population.

Let me make this clear: People are already dying from a lack of clean water. Roughly one-sixth of the world's population currently does not have access to safe drinking water; that's over 1 billion people today! If we don't act now, you, too, are going to be affected. Yes, you, in your luxury condo in that big American city. Yes, you, in your rural wooded town with a seemingly endless supply of nearby rivers and streams. And yes, especially you, in your 2.5-acre lot in sprawling suburbia in the middle of the desert. And I promise you, it's not going to be a matter of if, it'll simply be a matter of when.

So what is the problem, exactly? The Earth is covered with 326 million trillion gallons of water; you'd think that'd be enough to keep us all hydrated. The reality is, although dihydrogen oxide is present on our planet in copious amounts, less and less of it is available for us to drink, while more and more of it is being polluted by fat cat companies who don't give a damn about anything but the bottom line. And sadly, the governments of some the biggest polluters—China, the United States, and India come to mind—are doing precious little to combat the disastrous effects that a lack of clean water is already having on their citizens.

From all I've been learning over the past few weeks on this topic, I could literally write a book about what's wrong with our water today—and why you should care. Instead, I'm going to make three simple recommendations for how you can do your part. I strongly suggest you comply with at least one of these; otherwise, I just might have to get all Erin Brokovitch on your ass!

1. Get Smart, Part 1: Watch a Movie! If you don't see another film for the rest of the year, do yourself and the world a favor and rent 2008's Flow, directed by Irena Salina. By doing so, you'll get to see with your own two eyes what the major threats to the world's clean water supply are. Most jaw-dropping to me was discovering how companies that want to treat water as a commodity are, in collusion with the World Bank, screwing people the world over by taking over previously communal freshwater supplies and selling that water back—often polluted, no less!—at exorbitant markups. And they do it with a smile, too. It's disgusting.

2. Stop buying bottled water. Sounds simple, and really, it is. It's not just a matter of saving all that wasted plastic—not to mention the thousands of tons of fossil fuels spent trucking and shipping very heavy water from far reaches of the globe (ahem, Fiji Water) to your nearest supermarket or corner bodega. You should also keep in mind that the companies that package and sell water are making gobs of money off of something you can get for free just by turning on the tap or using a water fountain. What's more, most of the water you get in bottled water is simply tap water anyway—it's not any safer or tastier! Do you really want to help giants like Coke (Dasani), Pepsi (Aquafina), and Nestle (Poland Spring, Deer Park, San Pellegrino, and Perrier, among others) line their pockets with more of your money at the expense of the environment? I didn't think so. Instead, just buy a safe (BPA-free) washable, reusable water bottle and bring it with you to the gym or wherever you need portable water. See? Easy. It'll save you a few bucks in the process, too.

3. Get Smart, Part 2: Read! I won't bother mentioning some of the great books on water consumption, pollution, and misuse that are already out there. If you've read down this far, I'm simply going to reward you with a much quicker tip: Pick up the Summer 2009 issue of Good magazine and read it cover to cover. In this issue you'll find an excellent explanation of why dams are so bad for us; a look ahead at how drinking pee may be in our future; an illustrated listing of all major models of water gun ever produced (yes, I'm talking Super Soakers); a step-by-step guide to reducing your water impact; a moving plea from legendary oceanographer Sylvia Earle on why we need to take care of our oceans; and much more. Alternately, pay a visit to The New York Times, which just published an important series on water pollution called Toxic Waters. Among other things, you'll read how good people are getting cancer from carcinogens in their tap water and how an unregulated farming industry has been dumping tons of pollutants into our water supply for years with nary a slap on the wrist.

The good thing to keep in mind, of course, is that all is not lost. One word of hope I've gotten from almost everything I've read and watched about our current water crisis is that with a lot of hard work, some concentrated brainpower, and some political will, we can easily solve all of our water issues before they become truly catastrophic. But you have to understand the problem before you can fix it. So get educated and spread the word, and we might not have to bear out old Ben Franklin's prediction about finding the true worth of water. &infin


  1. If you care to check out the political side of things, there's this. (Feel free to take with grains of salt.)

  2. Great resource, thank you!

  3. Maia, good post!

    This subject is very interesting, and everyone should know a little about it.

    Although there are numerous facts to worry about, as you have pointed out, if you look at it worldwide, the amount of people having access to clean water has increased by a lot in the last decades, and the trend seems to continue upwards. Wikipedia has some information about it, and more:

    Hopefully, the water-crisis problem in some countries will likely be solved more diligently than the global warming problem, because lack of water will have clear effects. The effects of global warming are less conspicuous.


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