Wandering through Montreal last summer, I stumbled across a collection of massive photographs displayed in the centre of a city street. It was Guy Laliberté’s latest creative adventure, Gaia. The exhibit uses images Laliberté captured from the International Space Station in 2009. His aim is to raise awareness of water-related issues and showcase the fragility of water on Earth. Laliberté, creator of Cirque du Soleil, “believes that the arts remain the best vehicle to touch people, enlighten and obtain support.” Laliberté’s photographs were mesmerizing and his non-profit organization, One Drop, got me thinking about the issue of water scarcity.
It’s easy as a Canadian, and especially as a Victorian, to take water for granted. We turn a handle and are presented with an abundance of clean, free-flowing water that is virtually free. If you’ve been watching your water bill steadily increase over the past several years, you may disagree with me, but trust me, water in Victoria is very inexpensive. In parts of South America, people spend up to 10% of their annual household income on water. According to Statistics Canada, 10% of 2009 annual household income would equate to a $650 monthly water bill for the average Victoria household. In developed nations, spending 3% of household income on water is an indication of hardship. The figures above don’t take into account the opportunity cost of water collection, where impoverished women and children walk miles everyday to collect water and are therefore incapable of obtaining an education or of working.
Of course I wish I were in school. I want to learn to read and write…. But how can I? My mother needs me to get water.
Yeni Bazan, age 10, El Alto, Bolivia
Living in a resource rich nation, with an abundance of water, the picture most Canadians don’t see is the one where the world’s fresh water resources are being over-consumed. 1.4 billion people live in water basins where the consumption rate is higher than the recharge rate. And please don’t think water scarcity is only a problem for developing nations. According to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, 60 percent of European cities with more than 100,000 people, are using groundwater at a faster rate than it can be replenished. It is expected that by 2025, as much as two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in conditions of water stress, where the demand for water exceeds the supply.
The picture most Canadians don’t see is the one where 9,000 people die every day due to water related diseases, such as cholera and diarrhea. Behind that number are 9,000 real faces of real people with real hopes and real dreams. Unclean water is the world’s second biggest killer of children. Just over 100 years ago the child mortality rates in Paris, London, and New York were as high as they are today in Sub-Saharan Africa. Key contributors to the reduction in mortality rates were water and sanitation reforms.
The conditions here are terrible. There is sewage everywhere. It pollutes our water. Most people use buckets and plastic bags for toilets. Our children suffer all the time from diarrhoea and other diseases because it is so filthy.
Mary Akinyi, Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya
There is so much talk of a global community. In some senses the world is getting smaller, but the Earth system is a complex and intricate web on a scale that is difficult to visualize. When we look at images of our planet, we see the soothing expanse of blue and it is hard to imagine that water scarcity is an issue. But of all the water on the planet, only 2.5% is freshwater and less than 1% of all freshwater resources on the planet are available for ecosystems and human consumption.
Observing Earth from space, Guy Laliberté said, “Seeing our planet’s immense beauty also makes us realize its great fragility. Surrounded by darkness, with very distant neighbours, it strikes us as small and vulnerable… and magnificently proud. If there is such a thing as paradise, we’re already living in it. Now, I’m deeply convinced of this.”
There are so many issues in the world to worry about that it can become overwhelming. It is certainly easier to be blissfully ignorant, but water is at the base of everything: health, food production and security, domestic water supply and sanitation, energy, industry and environmental sustainability. It is imperative that we use this resource sustainably.
I encourage you to challenge your current thinking, to really consider what you need to lead a fulfilled and dignified life. A person requires fifty litres of water a day to maintain a basic level of dignity. If I am an average North American, I consume 50 litres of water just flushing the toilet every day and I use a total of 400 litres of water in 24 hours. The average European consumes 200 litres of water daily. Much of the world’s population exists on less than five litres of water per day.
It’s easy to get lost in the numbers and callously disregard the statistics because we all know that statistics tell an incomplete story. The point I am trying to convey is that water is invaluable and access to clean water is a basic human right. Everyone is as entitled to clean and safe water as I am. I’m not asking anyone to donate their life savings or jump on the next plane to Africa to start digging wells, but I am asking everyone to pause and reflect on the privileged life we lead. I’m not looking for guilt, but gratitude. I’m asking you to take two seconds the next time you draw a fresh glass of water from the tap to be thankful for how easy it was. I’m asking you to be grateful for the abundance of fresh water that flows from your showerhead every morning. I’m asking you to contemplate the freshwater in your toilet bowl that flows directly to the ocean every time you flush the toilet.
Mahatma Gandhi once commented that “the difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems.” My hope is that as you cultivate an awareness and a gratitude for this most basic, but most essential, resource you may adjust some of your habits. In the past 100 years, as the population tripled, the consumption of water increased by 700%.
It is easy to discount the contribution an individual can make, but the change has to start somewhere. Maybe you’ll replace your toilet with a low-flow version, maybe you’ll stop buying bottled water, maybe you’ll make sure the dishwasher is full before you turn it on, maybe your next load of laundry will consist of more than 2 t-shirts and a few pairs of socks.
If you do decide to make a contribution to help meet the UN Millenium Development Target of reducing by half the number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation by 2015, know that the world will see a significant return on your investment. For every $1 spent, there is $8 worth of averted costs and productivity gained.
Thursday, May 22 is World Water Day. Update your Facebook status, leave a comment below, or visit the One Drop website and make a commitment to change.
I will install a device to reduce toilet water
A cut-volume device can save 45,000 litres of water per year; the same amount one person will drink over 25 years!
I will use both sides of sheets of paper
It takes 10 litres of water to make a sheet of paper.
I will swap a meat meal for a vegetarian meal
A kilogram of meat requires 5 to 20 times more water than is used to produce a kilogram of cereal.
I will return unused drugs to the pharmacy
Unused drugs tossed in the garbage or toilet eventually find their way into our water supply.
I will use environmentally-friendly hygiene and cleaning products
We still do not know how tens of thousands of man-made chemicals affect our water supply and public health.
I will cut back on bottled water
Every year, around the world, $100 billion is spent on bottled water… Just a quarter of that amount would provide access to safe drinking water to the whole planet!
I will get involved in my community
Include yourself in community decisions about water, and advance the cause.
Here is what my Facebook status will say:
“When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.” Benjamin Franklin
Today is World Water Day. Make a change to acknowledge and protect the world’s most precious resource.
I will cut my water consumption in the shower in half. What will you do?
Visit https://unacvictoria.wordpress.com/ for ideas and update your status to make your pledge.
For additional information please visit the following sites:
United Nations Development Programme Human Development Report