Will the last person on the planet please turn off the tap?

By Ted Charles, ’12

“Water loss is imminent.”

Maude Barlow’s opening statements stunned me. Barlow, water rights activist and Chairperson for the Council of Canadians opened this year’s Wang Symposium with a harrowing message: our abuse of fresh water is incalculable and possibly irreversible. Barlow revealed that catastrophes have seemingly passed unnoticed through the media. A torrent of tragedies including the drying up of Lake Chad and the sinking of Mexico City have always been attributed to environmental degradation, but the pieces of the puzzle refused to fit together. Our use of fresh water, to irrigate fields grown in the most inhospitable climates and water the lawns of the most privileged, is irresponsible. Ideas of global warming and the greenhouse effect hint at that water crisis, but we have somehow avoided addressing it until now.

Destreet, an artist from Kampala, Uganda, cleans his silk screen with water from the tap outside his apartment. According to WaterAid, 884 million people worldwide do not have access to safe water. Photo by Ted Charles.

“We are seeing the theft of rural water systems,” Barlow stated while emphasizing the need to maintain water access for everyone.

Corporations have begun to channel water into a commodity rather than a right. I was disheartened to hear that the nefarious actions of a James Bond villain were actually a real occurrence. Barlow explained how, until recently, a company in Bolivia had gone so far as to claim ownership of rain.

Unfortunately I am not at all surprised. Lately it is all too common to hear that Monsanto or another company has laid claim over what seems to me as an intrinsic right. Barlow takes a similar stance, recently assisting in the approval of access to water as an International Human Right through the United Nations.

“I love a good protest,” remarked Barlow as she fondly recanted how she fought against the implementation of a pipeline on the steps of Canadian Parliament.

In a world that seems fraught with disaster through inaction, Barlow gives me hope. Her call to action resounded with me. It is not an option to fight for our access to clean water; it is our responsibility to make change now.

I have realized how important this year’s Wang Symposium is to our understanding as students and citizens of the world. At Pacific Lutheran University, I have been lucky enough to study away several times, each exposing me both to a new culture and to a fresh perspective on how I should live my own life. “Our Thirsty Planet” is no different.

As I prepare to graduate in the next few months I will be reflecting on Barlow’s statement that, “Water is a common heritage.” I realized that everyone on the planet is interconnected, with roots and branches intertwining to form one massive family tree. We must be stewards to the environment around us, and without water, our tree cannot prosper.

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