Understanding Water Inequality

Water Inequality

Thank you all for your patience this past week as I took my first week off from the blog. I had a wonderful time at a retreat with great friends in the stunning peak fall colors.

Today I’m introducing a topic that has been on my list since day one – Water Inequality. The two most important things that a person needs to survive are food and water. They work hand in hand to regulate body systems and provide fuel for everything one does. But in many parts of the world, there is little access to water and/or the available water is dangerously unsanitary. In some areas, people (usually women and older children) walk MILES every day to bring back whatever water they can carry from the nearest river or well. This stunts many areas of economic and medical progress as water is needed for growing crops, caring for livestock, sanitation, and human consumption, and one person can only carry so much.

water map

(Water map from unep.org – United Nations Environmental Programme)

As you can see from this map, access to water looks a lot like access to food, sanitation, economic opportunity, and education. The United States, Europe, and Australia are well provided for, and Central Africa and parts of Asia suffer the most. I’m not an environmental expert or an economist, but it seems pretty obvious to me that those things are connected. What is less clear to me is which came first – the chicken or the egg, so to speak.

At it’s most basic, access to clean water is a matter of simple geography. Here in Minnesota we have well over 10,000 lakes, including giant Lake Superior. There is no lack of water here. But it isn’t entirely that simple. There is desert in Africa, but there is desert in the American southwest as well, and yet Arizonans have access to safe drinking water. They ration more than Minnesotans, but they don’t suffer like the people in the yellow and red sections of that map. Infrastructure like wells, pipelines, and water treatment facilities are vital.

With geography and/or infrastructure in place, there are still hurdles to water access. Corrupt régimes know how vital water is and there are stories of soldiers blocking access to wells in retaliation or in effort to control the people. Lack of education is a problem as well. Uneducated peoples do not understand the importance of sanitation and water purification. In societies where survival is a battle, people do not have the means to hold out for cleaner water.

So here in the comfortable U.S. what does water inequality mean to us?

First, awareness of finite resources should spur us to make better choices about our water consumption. Shut off the water while you brush your teeth. Limit your shower times. Don’t overwater your lawn or run the dishwasher half empty.

Second, support efforts to create water access for all. Encourage your representatives to defend human rights around the world. Get involved in charities that dig wells and educate. A number of these organizations exist. Consult one of the charity rating sites to find a good organization.

There is always a lot of talk in the media about human rights and which provisions are basic human rights. Protesters like to use that language in their signs, “X is a basic human right!” Is it food? Affordable health care? There is no doubt that clean water is necessary for human existence, so in my mind that makes it, along with access to safe food, a basic human right. Does that mean I think food and water should be free? Not really. People don’t value free things. In crisis, free is important; the need is urgent and temporary. In the day to day, having life’s necessities available, safe, and affordable while ensuring people’s physical safety sets up a system where people can have basic human rights and where they will respect and not waste these vital building blocks of life, health, and society.

What do you think? Have you ever experienced the lack of clean water or been involved in raising money for water infrastructure? What was your experience like?

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