The words “water” and “crisis” have become nearly synonymous in the past year. Tainted water in Flint, Mich., and Hoosick Falls. Water in the streets from aging infrastructure in Troy. The drought in California. Too little water in Mexico City, Delhi and much of Africa. Too much water in flooded areas of the South. Water issues touch each of us, raising questions involving the environment and climate change, civil rights and public health.
Being reminded to drink eight glasses of water a day is hard enough. Having to think deeper about the way water touches our lives can feel impossible. Water, after all, makes up more than 70 percent of the planet, and the same for our bodies. Water, especially clean water, feels infinite.
For those of us in the Global North — developed countries — water is seemingly endless. We turn on the tap and there it is, and it isn’t until a major water travesty like those listed above happens that we realize the fickle nature of good water. (Living in a 130-year-old farmhouse with capricious plumbing, I find water constantly on my mind.)
We think about water less when we order shrimp cocktail or raw oysters at our favorite surf-and-turf restaurant. Americans consume nearly twice as much shrimp as we do canned tuna, and most shrimp sold in the U.S. comes from Thailand fish farms, which push chemicals and antibiotics into the water to increase yields. That water is then pumped back into waterways, further deteriorating any viability for wild-caught shrimp and contaminating natural water sources.
Beyond that, the increased acidification of our oceans has caused Pacific coast oysters to suffer. Fledgling oysters cannot grow to maturity, because the acidity kills them in infancy, and farmed oysters rely on water pumped in from the ocean that, while amended to correct the acidity, cannot be voided of a virus that thrives in the high-acid environment. The virus kills the oysters, and we’re left without one of our most-treasured delicacies. The same is true for salmon and troves of other seafood.
Vegetarians aren’t off the hook. California is the largest domestic producer of avocados, the primary ingredient for guacamole. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, every pound of avocados grown requires 72 gallons of water. That’s bad news for a state already crippled by drought. Growers of avocados, citrus, almonds and other orchard-based produce rely on wastewater from the oil industry to irrigate crops. That water is required by California law to be treated in a purification process before being sold to farmers, but groups like Water Defense, which was active in the fight against hydrofracking in New York, found acetone and methylene chloride in the irrigation water.
It makes those Cuties I put in my children’s lunchbox seem not-so-adorable.
Clean-water resources can also be relegated to corporate control. Nestle, the largest food manufacturer in the world, holds contracts in the San Bernardino National Forest and throughout Maine (where they bottle the Poland Spring brand of water) that give the company control over the water supply and limits or denies access to area taxpayers who seek fresh, clean, unadulterated water. Clean water, which many consider to be a human right, becomes subject to the free market economy and available only to those who can afford to buy it.
The commoditization of resources like water — something economists like Henry George promoted — is becoming more and more prominent, as Big Ag demands water for crops and livestock and savvy capitalists see opportunities to make bank from selling clean water.
(Charles Darrow, the man who invented the game Monopoly, was a staunch supporter of George’s economic theory. Why else would an individual be able to buy public water works?)
Water is more than just what we drink. It touches every part of our lives. Thinking beyond the tap means showering our consciousness with the role that water, a coveted resource, plays in our entire diets.