African women from Maasai tribe carrying water to their village, Kenya, Africa.

I remember forcing a lump down my throat while watching Bonnie Henry empathetically describe our new hand washing guidelines. It was mid-March, and our Canadian Covid-19 cases were making a consistent rise. ‘Wash your hands regularly with running water, and sing Happy Birthday twice – these 20 seconds will be your best defense against infecting yourself and others.’ 

That’s easy enough to do with access to 3 taps in my little apartment (located in a place that’s actually called Mount Pleasant); but I was a long way from home.

#FirstWorldGuilt

The gravity of these hand washing guidelines hit me hard because I knew that millions of people in my home county, and other parts of the developing world, wouldn’t have this privilege. Glaring at my reflection in the washroom; Happy Birthday rang hollow when I thought of my hometown. 

I am a South African immigrant – barely a year into my new First World life when the pandemic hit. I was always filled with gratitude for the comfort and safety I had found in Canada, but as the virus spread, my gratitude was paired with deep grief for what I knew would unfold in Africa. 

It’s not that the pandemic hit the developing world harder; I guess it simply exposed the unequal access to basic resources; like water, and amplified the other gross human rights issues already being faced there. I know that North American tap water isn’t perfect, but home access to clean water is game changer.  

In my new Canadian life, I’ve observed the liberal use of natural resources – perhaps I’m just more sensitive to it because I previously lived in drought-stricken Cape Town. I notice running faucets and leaking toilets. I notice entire aisles of bashfully branded plastic bottles of water, as well as the half-drunk ones scattered in the cars of my friends. I smile at the opportunities for recycling on every corner; though all of this world is still very new to me.  

If I’m honest, my lived reality of city life in South Africa still reeked of privilege compared to the majority of the population and continent. The taste of water changed in my mouth once I realized that I could afford to stock up on gallons of water during our drought, while others accepted the silent suffering they’ve grown accustomed to.

#FirstWorldGuilt

The gravity of these hand washing guidelines hit me hard because I knew that millions of people in my home county, and other parts of the developing world, wouldn’t have this privilege. Glaring at my reflection in the washroom; Happy Birthday rang hollow when I thought of my hometown. 

I am a South African immigrant – barely a year into my new First World life when the pandemic hit. I was always filled with gratitude for the comfort and safety I had found in Canada, but as the virus spread, my gratitude was paired with deep grief for what I knew would unfold in Africa. 

It’s not that the pandemic hit the developing world harder; I guess it simply exposed the unequal access to basic resources; like water, and amplified the other gross human rights issues already being faced there. I know that North American tap water isn’t perfect, but home access to clean water is game changer.  

In my new Canadian life, I’ve observed the liberal use of natural resources – perhaps I’m just more sensitive to it because I previously lived in drought-stricken Cape Town. I notice running faucets and leaking toilets. I notice entire aisles of bashfully branded plastic bottles of water, as well as the half-drunk ones scattered in the cars of my friends. I smile at the opportunities for recycling on every corner; though all of this world is still very new to me.  

If I’m honest, my lived reality of city life in South Africa still reeked of privilege compared to the majority of the population and continent. The taste of water changed in my mouth once I realized that I could afford to stock up on gallons of water during our drought, while others accepted the silent suffering they’ve grown accustomed to.

#ThirdWorldLife

My cleaning lady in South Africa, who lived in an informal settlement fringing Cape Town, relayed some of her daily struggles to me. She didn’t have easy access to running water for drinking, cooking or personal hygiene. This was her everyday life, pre and post our drought, and it remains the same during the pandemic…

The youngest in families like hers are tasked to collect water. And by that, I mean that a young African child navigates going to school and being responsible for carrying buckets of water home from the communal tap. Depending on the density of the settlement, taps like these are shared by hundreds of people; some trek over 30 minutes to the tap and back, sometimes making several trips.

For these families, it would be an understatement to call these drops of clean water precious.

These conversations arose in my home because I’d noticed that my cleaning lady never used the washroom, or drank water throughout the day. I naively advocated for how important it is to drink enough water, and that she was welcome to whatever she needed from my home. But she stuck to drinking one cup of tea a day, reluctantly explaining that her hydration habits were not by choice.

When she goes home in the afternoon, sanitation is so problematic where she lives that she doesn’t drink much water, to avoid using the washroom when she gets home. Although there are communal ablution facilities, they have become rat and rapist hotspots. At night, people (especially women) simply squat where they can to safely relieve themselves.

This is the lived reality of many Africans and Southern Asians. 

It’s worth remembering that not all of this is exclusively drought related. Provincial, national and even international funding allocated to proper water management solutions has been bottle-necked by unchallenged political corruption in countries like South Africa and India. Even if they wanted to, most people in those countries wouldn’t be able to sing Happy Birthday (even once) at a running faucet.

Wash Your Hands

At the time of writing this article, South Africa ranks 5th in the world of Covid-19 cases. Their national healthcare is unable to cope with surges of 500 new cases being confirmed every hour. ‘Wash your hands,’ they say – but how? Some of the country’s most vulnerable people have never had dignified access to water, and now they’ve even been taken to Covid-19 camps.

If there’s one thing the spread of this virus has taught us; it’s that we are all inextricably connected. 

Even the great USA has had to bend a knee to a wet market on the other side of the world. One part of me wants to see the light within all humanity, and the other observes our parasitic tendencies – unevenly sharing the earth’s natural resources; mostly taking far more than we give in our lifetimes. 

Every single thing we do (and consume) in one part of the world, has long-lasting global consequences.

Global Freshwater Scarcity

By 2025 the UN estimates that 1.8 billion people will be living with absolute water scarcity. That’s about 30% of the world’s population residing in 50 countries. Here are some of the challenges they have acknowledged within these countries:

insufficient water supply infographic

While the UN has been addressing the global crisis caused by insufficient water supply to satisfy basic human needs, steadily increasing basic human development indicators; growing populations with developing aspirations come with their own demands. Increased commercial and agricultural needs without solid sustainability backings, will almost make the UN’s efforts redundant in the long run.

At least for the moment, the First World is in a stable enough position to address issues around unsustainable water management practices, related economic pressure, and the impact of climate change on our global freshwater scarcity.

Canada, for example, has about 7% of the world’s supply of renewable freshwater but has less than 0.5% of the world’s population. It’s easy to sing Happy Birthday twice around a tap here. But back in Africa, not so much. 20 seconds feels like an eternity when water is scarce. Folks over at The Water Project know it all too well. Trust me, the kids drawing water aren’t standing in a single-file, 2 meters apart, waiting for their turn at the communal tap.

First world water access and personal space are incredible privileges that I am deeply grateful for in my new life here, especially during the pandemic. I often wonder if I share that sentiment with my polite North American friends. Sometimes, it doesn’t feel that way.

We’re so comfy in our First World bubble with our squeaky-clean hands. Climate change is pending doom, but even though we lavishly offer up greenhouse gases, some of us still think it’s far away. Most millennials have never lived through a drought or experienced severe water scarcity.

I don’t know if it was something about South Africa’s government turning off our taps once a home its daily quota, or the way I would pull my face when I had to flush the toilet with left-over bath water – but somewhere in between this forceful sowing of humility, I began to understand what a great equaliser Mother Nature can truly be. I don’t think there’s a vaccine for what she’s ready to serve.

Our ever-expanding global population and consumer choices cultivate an unnatural balance of competing commercial demands on natural water resources – the more we use, the more we seem to need – slowly turning elective water wastage into both an environmental and human rights violation (through apathy for others, your future self, and the next generation).

Sure, freshwater sources are renewable, but for us to maintain sustainable levels of water per capita, our freshwater replenishment rate must be higher than our rate of consumption. So we can’t be taking more than nature is able to provide. This premise applies to all nations. Though I’ve been reading that despite a decline in US water withdrawals between 2005 and 2015, the country still has the highest per capita water consumption amongst most First and Third World economies.

Basically if renewable water sources decline due to seasonal droughts, climate change or consumption related to population spikes and ignorant consumer behavior; that lovely lakeside vacation will be a dry distant memory for you (and I don’t even want to think about what it will mean to these water-stressed countries).

#Blessed

Now, I’m not trying to privilege-shame you for enjoying a holiday home, but I am suggesting that we collectively adopt a sense of gratitude and consciousness about our various touch points with water – even ones that are less tangible, and especially when we live in seasons and areas of abundance.

According to NASA, our complex freshwater world is changing and on the move. This makes me think that despite fancy western infrastructure, distribution and water management; our demands, paired with human-caused climate change and natural climate cycles, can have far reaching ramifications.

If you were in the Central Valley of California in the last decade, or the Indus Basin in northwestern India and Pakistan, you’d know all about this. My guess is that the lived experience of water stress in the US is slightly different to that of India; though the thirst for ground water is definitely a global issue. Water scarcity always ends up feeling, smelling and tasting the same.

I had dinner with some friends from India while writing this piece, and when I asked about how they feel about water, one of them showed me the clip below.

That lump in my throat returned, and when I tried to deflect it by heading to the washroom prep my Indian ‘cutlery’(yes, we eat with our hands), I was only reminded of my clean, cool water perks once again.

Those 20 seconds are more sacred than you think. Grateful and more aware of my privileges than ever before, I’m going to explore where they intersect with another’s oppression or nature’s exploitation, and find a way to change that.

A Hard Pill

(swallow it, like you do everything else)

According to the UN; the average person needs between 5.3 to 13.2 gallons of water to satisfy their daily drinking, domestic, and sanitation needs. Now let’s put our water consumption into perspective:

0 Gallons
Gallons of water per day for average African family
0 Gallons
Gallons of water per day for average American family

Right now, if everyone on the planet had the domestic water habits of the average North American or European; we would need the freshwater supply of about 3 Earths to sustain us.

And that’s an interesting phrase, ‘water habits’ – how conscious are we about our engagement with this finite resource when we have easy access to it?

The EPA estimates that an American home wastes over 10 000 gallons of water per year (and that’s just from average household leaks in toilets and pipes – not those half-drunk plastic water bottles you coddle and then leave on beaches).

Virtual Water Consumption

That figure doesn’t even factor waste through virtual water consumption by supporting industries that use exorbitant amounts of water throughout their agricultural, industrial and production processes. On a global level, agriculture and industry draw on 70% and 19% of our freshwater sources respectively.

Our ever-expanding global population cultivates an unnatural balance of competing commercial demands on natural water resources – the more we use, the more we seem to need – slowly turning water wastage into an environmental and human rights violation when we adopt empathy for what’s going on the other side of the world.

Agriculture water usage

70%

Industry water usage

19%

Sure, freshwater sources are renewable, but even for the First World to maintain sustainable levels of water per capita, the freshwater replenishment rate must be higher than our rate of consumption. Despite a decline in overall US water withdrawals between 2005 and 2015, the country still has the highest per capita water consumption amongst most First and Third World economies. And even though corporates have caved to water-wise pressure over time, there is still much work to be done.

As consumers and personal withdrawers ourselves, don’t we have to take some sort of responsibility here too?

If renewable water sources decline due to seasonal droughts, climate change or consumption related to population spikes and ignorant consumer behavior; that lovely lakeside vacation will be a dry distant memory for you (and I don’t even want to think about what it will mean to these water-stressed countries).

Consumer Choices

Did you know that your refreshing little bottle of water actually uses more water in its plastic bottle production process than you’re actually sipping in the end product? And that waste pairs horrendously with the harmful environmental effects of single-use plastic on macro and micro water pollution. If you need more reasons to give up drinking bottled water, read this.

And how about that juicy little sirloin? Did you know that it takes over 1000 gallons of water to reach your plate? Seriously, the average cow needs to consume around 1300 kg of grain and 7200 kg of roughage for a period of 3 years before it produces around 200 kg of beef. When you consider the water needed for that amount of grain (grain that could very well sustain human life itself), the water needed for farming maintenance, and a thirsty cow’s water needs – your steak’s water worth equates to about 6 months of showers!

Now, I’m not trying to guilt trip you for enjoying meat, but I am suggesting that we adopt a sense of consciousness about our various forms of personal water consumption – even ones that are less tangible, and especially when we live in seasons of abundance.

According to NASA, our complex freshwater world is changing and constantly on the move. This makes me think that despite fancy First World infrastructure, distribution and water management; our demands, paired with human-caused climate change and natural climate cycles, can have far reaching ramifications. If you were in the Central Valley of California in the last decade, or the Indus Basin in northwestern India and Pakistan, you’d know all about this. Although my guess is that the experience of water stress in the US is radically different to that of India.

Global Development

Clean water, health, and economies are fundamentally linked.

Safe drinking water and good hygiene significantly improves the health of communities (especially during a time of crisis), increases school attendance (helping girls to stay in school with dignity when it’s that time of month), and empowers families to lift themselves out of poverty.

If you’re a feminist humanitarian like me, you’d be pleased to know that Canada recently assisted a few cool global water initiatives. Trump’s administration also put together a comprehensive Global Water Strategy in 2017, and has since offered immediate relief with long-term developmental support to vulnerable Middle-Eastern and African water infrastructures – okay, so he did one good thing. A drop in the ocean of what needs to be done, but it’s a conscious effort with potential for longevity.

And there are many other First World countries and non-profit organizations bringing safe drinking water to developing countries. If you’d like to contribute in this way, this top 10 initiative list from Donorbox could come in handy.

But it’s not all about money – as mentioned, some developing governments have funds available to them – so you’ll want to look out for projects that refresh both water management resources and perspective.

Many developing regions are rapidly industrializing, often with unregulated waste management, which will create huge problems later on (yes, even for you in the First World when the not so freshwater moves). Environmental contamination from waste mismanagement is an intercontinental issue. Enhancing the life cycle of waste, as well as reducing water, soil and air contamination requires buy-in from international stakeholders and regulation from local authorities. Although if we start at the source, and work on getting everyone access to clean water through sustainable water infrastructure; good waste management practice will naturally follow suit.

And if you’d also like to apply your mind to the cause; have a look at this Global Citizen piece for some inspiration on how simple ideas are being combined with technology to help developing countries purify water and empower locals. Genius is often born out of adversity.

Now That You Know Better

Maya Angelo’s; ‘Now that you know better, do better,’ has resonated with me for years. I’ve found grace in these words when I’ve made mistakes, or when I’ve received new information about something I thought I already understood. I hope this message reaches you at a time that you’re receptive to hearing it.

If we don’t aspire to be better role models of what progression truly looks like,
it won’t matter how hard we wash our hands – they’ll ever come clean.

Do Better

A shift doesn’t have to be all that radical. For a start, you could take an honest introspective look at your consumer choices and touch points with water. Domestic water use grew 600% over the past 50 years so surely individual habits count. Even if it’s small behavioral tweaks like, turning the tap off while brushing your teeth, or doing one meat-free dinner a week – consistent water conservation choices can move mountains like a gentle stream; small but of great impact for ourselves and others over time.

You could also look out for industries that promote water conservation and invite their products into your day to day life. There are tons of tiny upgrades you could do around your home to make it more water efficient too. Installing water-efficient fixtures and appliances save around 20% of your usual water consumption. Forbes also offers a few great ideas here.

Since leaking toilets and pipes waste the most water, you should take care of leaks as fast as possible. A great way to be proactive about the health of your water pipes would be to install a home water filter to keep corrosive stuff out of your pipes (and out of your body if you’re planning to kick the bottled water habit).

Most tap water is perfectly safe to drink, but if you’re in the US, it would serve you well to find out where your state falls on this comprehensive list of tap water quality. Americans have access to sprawling water systems with multiple suppliers and sources; so if you live in New Mexico or Texas, you’d probably benefit from switching to home water filtration and reusable containers. A long term win for your pocket and the environment.

Be Better

Every saved drop adds to a shift in collective consciousness about our consumption of this resource. Maybe your nosey neighbor will learn a thing or two from watching you? Humans are curious beings, especially the young ones, and the ones who look to the First World as the destination of progressive hope. So will you teach them the ways of a water whore?

I had dinner with some friends from India while writing this piece, and when I asked about how they feel about water, one of them showed me the clip below.

That lump in my throat returned, and even though I tried to swirl it down with a glass of wine, it wouldn’t go away.

My glass of wine cost 31 gallons of water. In this ripple of distant worlds, I too am a water whore.

There is still much work to be done, but we can start changing the shape of our water footprints today.