I had always taken access to potable water for granted until
I was on a long distance bicycle trip more than a decade ago. I was biking from
as part of an organized event to raise money for HIV/AIDS organizations. Pit
stops were strategically placed every 20 miles, but on one especially hot day I
ran out of water long before I would reach the next pit stop. By the time I
made it into camp that night, I was exhibiting signs of dehydration. After resting,
and consuming what seemed like gallons of water, I was back on my bike the next
A few weeks after that bike ride, I had another experience
with water. The organization I work for is located in an economically
challenged part of Minneapolis. Homeless
people were using our outdoor water faucet to brush their teeth, bathe, wash clothes,
and collect drinking water. I got a call from a woman who worked across the
street from our nonprofit saying that she found it "unsightly" watching people at
our water spigot. She asked us to turn the water off. As it turned out, many
businesses had turned their water sources off to discourage street people from
gathering at these urban watering holes. Having been made ill from the lack of
water a few weeks prior, I told the caller that we would never disconnect this
water source for the neighborhood – and we never have.
In the next few years my work would take me to Africa.
In South Africa, lacking water in their homes, thousands of people living in
townships walk to public water taps – an impossible distance for the elderly
and those who are ill. In the rural areas, women journey to rivers to draw
water, lift the jugs on their heads, and then walk back to their villages. Millions
of people, every year, suffer water-borne illnesses; and approximately 1.8
million people annually – mostly children – die from diarrheal diseases
associated with unsafe water.
It was a South African activist who asked me how many water
taps I have in my home. I said I had no idea. The activist responded by saying
that only people with privilege don't know how many sources of water they have
in their homes. Poor people, he went on, have to plan their daily lives around
fetching water. He was right. (By the way, we have seven sources of safe
drinking water in our 1,200 foot home in Minneapolis.)
I know I leave a large "water footprint" every day. I enjoy
long showers and hot baths. I do laundry too frequently. But I am determined to
cut down on my water use.
I've made certain that all of the stoppers in the sinks and
bath tub in our home actually hold water. I've stopped running hot water when I
shave; using water in the basin instead. When the dehumidifier is full, I take
the container outside and pour the water onto plants. Our gardens have been
replaced with indigenous plants and grasses which require less water than the
annuals we had been planting. And just this weekend, we put a rain barrel in
the backyard to collect water.
These are small efforts that don't conserve much water.
Still, a few modifications in my life help to remind me that we share the
planet with millions of people who simply don't have access to water. And
awareness is always the first step towards action.