United States’ tapped resources

By Annie Norling, ’12

“Water, water every where, nor any drop to drink.”

As Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous line suggests, humans are soon to be surrounded by water that cannot quench their thirst. Maude Barlow, the keynote speaker for Pacific Lutheran University’s annual Wang Symposium, opened her address on issues of water rights around the world with Coleridge’s words.

Alliance of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow addresses an audience of almost 350 people in Pacific Lutheran's Lagerquist Concert Hall Thursday. Her keynote message on stewardship was the second of two opening sessions for the 2012 Wang Symposium Thursday and Friday titled Our Thirsty Planet. "Fighting for justice is like a bath," she said as she neared the end of her speech. "You take it every day or you stink." Photo by Heather Perry.

At the beginning of the speech, Barlow recognized the students, faculty and staff of PLU live in a water-rich area — an area where rain is a common occurrence, if not a nuisance. It is difficult for those of us who live in the Pacific Northwest to wrap our heads around the idea of a global water crisis. However, as a student who has studied abroad, I have felt the effects of this crisis firsthand.

“We are a planet running out of water… accessible, clean water,” Barlow said.

I experienced the lack of safe drinking water in countries such as Argentina, Mexico and Nicaragua. In Nicaragua, I stayed with a host family where running water was only available for a few hours in the evening — the rest of the day the taps were dry. Even when the pipes held water, it was not safe for me to drink.

Though I have witnessed the lack of clean water in other countries, I did not know that the water crisis existed within my own nation’s borders.

Barlow explained that in Detroit, Michigan, the city cut water access to 90,000 people because the cost of water rose to such extremes. In addition, the Great Lakes are not only being polluted by waste and invasive species, but the lakes are being depleted as well. Every day, people remove more water than nature and humans replace.

“Demand in our world for water is going straight up and supply is going straight down,” Barlow explained.

Of its many uses, water is used to produce commodities, such as cars and computers, corn and cotton. These “virtual water exports,” as Barlow described, take water from the source without replacing it. One-third of the United States’ water consumption leaves the country in the form of virtual water exports.

I grew up with what Barlow calls the “myth of abundance.” I was unaware the water supply is running out because I have always had plenty of fresh, clean tap water. The abundance that I was taught is now becoming a shortage, where the wealthy are the few who can afford water.

Barlow claimed that water is a basic human right. We must change our view from water as a commodity to water as a commons, a public heritage, and a common trust. However, as Barlow emphasized, the right to water does not mean the right to fill your swimming pool, to wash your car, or to tend golf courses. What Barlow fights for is the right to water for life.

In closing her keynote address, Barlow quoted J.R.R. Tolkien’s Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, “the rule of no realm is mine… But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care… For I also am a steward. Did you not know?”


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