A world in need of water

by Elizabeth


I once listened to an interview with Linda Sue Park, author of the children’s book Long Walk to Water. I remember being completely struck by her comment that if you don’t have water, you don’t have anything. Water is everything. Even more than food, water is LIFE.

But access to water is something I have always taken for granted. I’ve been insulated from these things. I’ve never worried about where my bathing water or washing water, let alone my drinking water, was going to come from.

Beyond that – I’ve never worried about whether my water is clean. I’ve always had access to clean, safe drinking water, even in Cambodia. And I swim in large, artificial pools of water FOR FUN.  Talk about privilege.

Some time later, I read in Pacific Standard magazine about Colin Kelley’s research on water distribution. How a lack of water is one the factors that can lead to instability in a region. And how experts thought nothing could happen in Syria, it was stable. Nothing — that is — until a drought descended, and the whole region destabilized. Practically overnight.

Kelley’s research shows that the Syrian drought was made 2 to 3 times more likely by “human influences.” Human influences like grazing policies that favored larger farmers, and the ensuing desperate attempt by smaller farmers to access water any which way they could: by digging wells. So ground water became depleted. Wheat crops began to fail. Families started to migrate. And the whole system started to disintegrate.

But this is not the first time human behavior has affected the environment in negative ways. Susan Wise Bauer, in a recent Psychology Today article, says that when ancient Sumerians needed more water to grow their own wheat crops, they simply irrigated their fields with the nearly fresh (but slightly brackish) water of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. When it became clear that the fields were suffering, they refused to fallow the fields to allow for recovery.

While it led to prosperity in the short run, over time it led to political and economic instability and, eventually, permanent desertification of the area. So no, the modern world is not alone in its abuse of this good earth. And truly, the reach of the curse is far.

But problems like the ones faced in the Middle East can happen anywhere, because lack of access to basic resources like food and water affects political regimes. And people like Colin Kelley work hard to predict the next great shifting of people, power, and resources.

One of those places is the American Pacific region – all the way from Mexico, whose drought in the 1990’s and early 2000’s led many to migrate north, up through California, and into Oregon and Washington.

Agricultural workers already had to cycle through various crop locations each year. But then drought came to California, and workers were fainting in the fields from exhaustion and dehydration. Then they couldn’t make quota. Then fields started to close. And families had to move.

These agricultural workers lead economically precarious lives. Surely drought affects poorer workers much more severely than it affects the middle and upper classes, whose lives are far more cushioned against climate troubles.

And that is the point in the article where I paused. I paused to mourn for the families in California — and the Middle East — who are intimately acquainted with the current drought. I paused to mourn for people who are displaced because of these current droughts. I paused to mourn over the human contribution to these current droughts.

I paused to contemplate how silly my ministry pursuits, or my educational concerns for my children, or my desire for leisure time, might be in the light of people who have no water to drink and no food to eat.

And I paused to long for the day when this current worldly mess will all.be.over.

Then I had to press pause on my pause and put the magazine up, because my children still needed feeding and bathing and tucking in.

But I won’t stop longing for the Day.



Sarah Mackenzie’s interview with Linda Sue Park, author of Long Walk to Water, at Read Aloud Revival podcast.

“Droughtlandia” — an article by Jeremy Miller in Pacific Standard magazine.

Research Spotlight on Colin Kelley, also in Pacific Standard magazine.

“Destroying the Planet. We’ve Been Doing It for a Long Time.” — an article by Susan Wise Bauer in Psychology Today magazine.

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