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The Unbearable Consumption of Being, pt. 3: Water Wars

The Unbearable Consumption of Being, pt. 3: Water Wars

While we touched on water consumption in the first iteration of this series, it merits its own deep-dive because soon our children will not know what the physical act of diving is when taken out of the context of "away from the path of a bullet." We're in a pretty dire situation, globally, when it comes to water scarcity–and that becomes much more acute when you look at particular regions. The reason behind this is twofold and obvious: we're overconsuming, and climate change has thrown a complicated wrench into our supply.

Across the globe, "natural" shortages have historically raised tensions between nations and neighborhoods. The scale of these conflicts need not be massive; water is something everyone needs, and a shortage at the local level can be as problematic for those affected as one that occupies a country. All it takes is three days–three days and we perish. It's not hard to see why water quickly becomes a source of contention when–much like the supply chain–its workings appear almost invisible until something goes wrong.

Day Zero

I spoke about this briefly a long, long time ago. "Day Zero" is the moniker for the last day a municipality is able to provide water for its residents. In Cape Town,  South Africa, 2018, a yearslong drought resulted in the water supply for the 3,000,000+ residents reaching an all-time low. The city tightened usage restrictions over and over, reaching a 50-liter/person daily cap, and plans were drawn up to turn off taps entirely and require residents to wait at water collection stations around the city for a 25 liter allotment. Thankfully, restrictions helped push back the draining of the water supply, and a change in the weather saved the city from reaching the predicted Day Zero.

That doesn't mean Day Zero won't come elsewhere. And it's meaningful, I think, to look at where our consumption levels begin versus where they end. In Cape Town, there was no cap on usage for many residents, but a "tariff" was placed on consumption above a certain amount. As the drought began to worsen, eventually restrictions were put in place like "no watering gardens, washing cars, filling pools" though there was no personal cap. Finally, in 2017, the first per-person cap was placed at 100 liters per day. This sounds like a lot up until you break it down. For starters, the average American uses 82 gallons of water a day. And for those of you like me, who have to Google conversions, 82 gallons is over 310 liters.

Now, freshwater consumption in America as it pertains to civilians is a relatively small piece of the pie. Changing the brunt of water usage in America is going to take a societal shift–a necessary one, but not one that we can create overnight. Nevertheless, we waste a lot of what we've got. The link above shows the water breakdown in households, and it's a little embarrassing. More than a third of our water is lost to leaks, and toilets. Walk through this idea with me for a second before you go, "well, yeah, I need to flush my toilet." We use fresh, clean, potable water to fill our toilets. We use fresh, clean, potable water to carry away our waste. The average toilet uses 1.6 gallons per flush. In a survival situation, that's one and a half days' water ration, just because you felt gross about seeing yellow in your toilet bowl.

Water Wars

The Klamath River Basin is an ecological wonderland, home to rare and endangered species that are under the protection of the US government. It is a powerfully meaningful area to the Klamath Tribe, who have hunted and fished the region long before anyone white came along, and also a large source of water for over a thousand farms in the greater region and hundreds of locals. But even before the worst throes of climate change, the Klamath River Basin has been in trouble.

In 2001, a drought in the basin forced the government to choose between  maintaining the lives of the endangered fish and keeping promises to the Indigenous peoples of the region, or allotting water to area farmers. They chose the former, and some very rough protests broke out, ending when locals broke into the canal and opened the gates, forcing water to flow and forcing the governments hand, who then buckled and allotted farmers some of the water.

A similar situation arose in the Klamath River Basin last summer. Fronted by Ammon Bundy, as the waters in the Klamath region dried up and the government was forced to make cuts, farmers once again started polishing their boltcutters. They bought up land around the main canal, promising to use force if necessary to restore the flow of water to the drought-stricken farmland. It's not the only conflicted area in America, either, as historically water has been a source of tension in California–somewhat famously, I'd say–due to the enormous needs of Los Angeles and its relatively minute natural supply.

Conflict is not a situation unique to America, either, as tensions rise along the Nile and Mekong Rivers over waters controlled by Ethiopia and China, respectively, which are crucial to countries downstream. The Ak-Suu River was reportedly the source of several armed conflicts between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, when local Tajiki residents sought to take over the river's distribution system. Tens of thousands were displaced by the fighting, and over fifty killed.

Day Zero, America

It's not necessary for their to be a literal Day Zero in this country for their to be a fight over water, or simply a deadly lack. Political forces have done as little as possible to assist communities like Flint, and it doesn't take much imagination to combine the possibilities of poisonous infrastructure, low supply, and high tension to find that they are effectively a time bomb.

A situation that puts people together in need of a limited resource is a formula for conflict. We are on a finite planet, and water, plentiful as it may seem, is finite too. When you realize that not only is this naturally a source of conflict, but one that political players can manipulate, you begin to see how the future might unfold for us in this country. Today, the government attempts to mete out water as needed in the Klamath Basin. Tomorrow, that water may be given over wholesale to the farmers, leaving the Klamath people and the ecosystem in the lurch. Turn of the century California is a perfect example of how a racist, capitalist government will operate–I don't expect the future to be much different.

At the end of the day, it doesn't matter whether water scarcity creates a fight in your backyard, or it's the scarcity itself that reaches out to you. Both can be deadly. Before Day Zero is already here, we need to learn to live with less. Let's begin by maybe using a little less drinkable, completely and utterly clean water just to flush away our waste?