For the Love of Water


Turn water on.
Get wet as fast as possible.
Turn water off.
Shampoo hair and soap body.
Turn water on.
Rinse as fast as possible.
Turn water off.
Exit shower.

Soap sponge.
Squish a few times to make froth and foam.
Put stopper in sink.
Scrub as many dishes as possible, placing carefully in empty sink until no more fit.
Turn on water to a drizzle.
Rinse dishes into stopped sink.
Turn water off.
Use sink water to wash remaining dishes.
Turn water on.
Rinse dishes as fast as possible.
Turn water off.
Use sink water for remainder of day to get food off hands, soak stubbornly crusty dishes, wipe counters, etc.

Place cup under faucet.
Turn water on.
Fill cup.
Turn water off.
Drink deep of the liquid gold you never appreciated so much.

My family and I recently arrived in the Cape Town area of South Africa at the tale end of a severe three year drought. We quickly adopted new routines when it came to showering, washing dishes, brushing teeth, and flushing toilets (“If it’s yellow let it mellow; if it’s brown flush it down”). At first, our three-year-old daughter struggled perhaps more than my husband and me.

She loves water.

Having spent her entire life in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia where water seems in never-ending supply, she has a hard time understanding why she has to turn off the tap in between wetting her hands, soaping them, and rinsing them. Back “home” we had so much rain that we complained about it most of the time (with the exception of two peak summer months when we weren’t allowed to water lawns because of the summer “drought”).

In the winter months, Eliana put on her boots and rain jacket and squealed in delight as she jumped and splashed in the massive puddles on our neighbour’s driveway. She also inexplicably stood under the drain pipe that gushed freezing water off our roof and got soaked to the bone. And she loved it.

In the summer months she delighted to play with the outdoor hose, splash in her backyard kiddie pool, and take prolonged showers. When I think about it now, it’s absurd how much water we let her waste, but in that context, it was normal.

Here in South Africa, using that much water is anything but normal. In fact, water wastage is viewed almost as criminal. So, it’s been a big adjustment for Eliana. But after a few weeks of shouting for her to turn off the water and threatening various consequences for wasting water, she is now becoming the water police in our home. “Mom, you didn’t turn off the water when you brushed your teeth. That’s wasting water. You get a time out.” Dang it! Busted again.

To be totally honest, I’m the one struggling now. I just really, really want to take a long, hot shower. I want to let the water run for 20 minutes to soothe my sore muscles after a long day out or walking the groceries home by hand. I want to – dare I say it out loud? – take a bath! Oh, to soak in a lavender bath after a stressful day! But alas, I can’t even imagine using that many litres on such a trivial luxury.

To make the situation even more acute, the apartment complex we live in recently installed water meters. It’s a whole new level of obsession. I regularly check our water usage for the day and dutifully record it every evening. I then chastise our household (i.e. my husband) for how much water we’ve consumed and insist that we use less (although, as the person who washes most of the dishes in our home, I know that I’m the biggest culprit when it comes to water wastage). Not only does the water meter tell us how much we’ve used, its rapid and steady countdown tells me how many litres we have left before I have to go to the store and buy more water. Ouch.

For millions of people in Africa, though, this is par for the course. They’ve been conserving water for generations. While much of the continent is covered in lush rain forests, dense jungles, and rushing rivers, access to water is a perennial problem for everyone. Collection and storage of water has traditionally been a manual task – women and girls walk considerable distances to fill jugs (clay or plastic) and haul them home balanced on their heads or slung over their backs. It’s hard work. When they get the water home, every drop is precious. It’s needed for washing, cooking, drinking, bathing, watering domestic livestock, and more.

In addition to struggling to access water, families on the continent are struggling to find sources of clean water. Rivers and open wells are often contaminated with intestinal parasites that make the whole family sick. Children are disproportionately affected – being so young (and sometimes malnourished) their little bodies just aren’t strong enough to fight off infection. They miss school, miss playtime, and in the worst cases, end up in clinics, hospitals, or succumb to the sickness altogether. According to the World Health Organization “a lack of water and poor quality water increases the risk of diarrhoea, which kills approximately 2.2 million people [globally] every year”. That’s a seriously sobering statistic.

For those living where water itself, not just access to water, is scarce, the challenge is doubly extreme. Not only do people struggle to access water (forget clean water), they constantly live in fear of the sources drying up. And they do. Wells stop producing. Rivers run dry. The rains fail. The Global Water Institute estimates that 700 million people worldwide could be displaced by intense water scarcity by 2030. That’s barely over 10 years from now. And it’s not only subsistence farmers in South Sudan or Ethiopia that are impacted; water scarcity affects populations on every inhabited continent.

While the poor do suffer disproportionately from climate change-induced water scarcity, as the people of the Western Cape have been learning, it will eventually catch up to all of us. No amount of money was going to save Cape Town from Day Zero. When there’s no water left, there’s just no water left.

And that’s a pretty scary reality.

But as far as I can tell, fear is rarely an effective, long-term motivator. Sure, people will adjust their behaviour when under pressure, when they can see impending doom drizzling reluctantly out of their taps. But as soon as the pressure is off, we forget. In time, we will forget the pain of the drought and water wastage will become normal, again. The threat of water scarcity, however, will not evaporate.

Fear will not save the world from running out of water.

But love might.

If we learn to love the girl walking two kilometers each way to haul home parasite-infected water on her back instead of going to school, we might change our attitudes and make water conservation a permanent lifestyle.

If we learn to love the mother desperately eking out every last drop of this precious, life-giving resource, we might turn off the tap when we brush our teeth.

If we learn to love our own neighbourhoods and want to see them thrive far into the future, we might forget taking a bath, pressure-washing the deck, or running a half-empty load of laundry.

If we learn to love, we might learn to change.

But is turning off the tap between shampooing and rinsing our hair in the shower really enough? Is changing personal habits going far enough to really loving our family, our neighbour, our world? If love is what we’re aiming for, maybe we need to consider going a step further.

Maybe we could try opening our hearts and our pockets to put our money where our love is.

Maybe we could help bring that singular source of water two kilometers closer to that eight-year-old girl. Maybe we could help create access to clean water that will dramatically reduce childhood illness in her village, raise school attendance, promote economic activity, and show those struggling with water scarcity that we love them and truly believe we’re in this together.

Water shortage is not an African problem; it’s a global threat. It’s not a problem of poverty; it’s a matter of overconsumption by all of us. But if we wait until we are directly affected to make changes, it’s going to be too late. Let’s cultivate love for our global neighbours and next-door neighbours today – for our planet and for the future. Let’s begin changing our personal habits while also reaching out to become part of the global solution.




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Food for the Hungry: For the Love of Water
For the Love of Water
Food for the Hungry
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