Hardly a drop of water to drink
Last week, I joined a roundtable discussion with representatives of the World Bank. They had recently released “Overcoming Poverty and Inequality in the Philippines” and the Philippines’ Country Climate and Development Report.
Central to our discussion, and intertwining both reports, were two things. The first is the demand for clean water.
We are surrounded by ocean on all sides and rain from above—but it is fresh water we need, for irrigation, industries, agriculture, our homes. For many places in the country, simply giving people access to fresh water was enough to boost morale and inspire the community to live and do better.
There is no system in place to ensure that water is properly distributed, which is a tall order for our country’s over 30 water-related institutions with multiple overlapping, sometimes contradictory policies. Climate change will make the problem worse, and it’s not solvable by simply having more rain: Heavy rainfall also increases water turbidity, which increases the cost and time needed to treat water.
To solve our country’s water problems, we need integrated solutions: harmonize plans across fewer agencies, retrofit and rehabilitate dams instead of building new ones, pour money into subsidies for farmers so that they can efficiently irrigate their fields while diversifying their crops, and increase forest cover.
Our cities also need master plans for flood management—and to this, I would add that all cities should be involved, with nonparticipants penalized. Floods don’t stop at city boundaries.
The second idea central to our discussion was that of inequality.
Poverty is often framed in terms of who has what. Inequality nuances the issue further: Many are poor because of circumstances outside their control, and in ways that are pervasive and self-propagating.
A classic example: Poor families do not have enough money to feed their children nutritious (often expensive) food. Relief goods or donations are most often sodium-rich, with few nutrients. Children from poor families are underdeveloped, physically and mentally, from the womb. They do not perform well in school and end up in low-paying, often contractual jobs. They can afford inexpensive (often non-nutritious) food for their families. The cycle begins anew.
In terms of water and climate change, the poor are at a severe disadvantage. Less water means fewer crops, more expensive goods, a greater proportion of income taken up by food. The cycle is not broken.
Education is no great equalizer, in this case: School is often treated as a stepping stone to a job, rather than a place to learn lifelong skills, such as verifying information, curiosity, asking questions. Simply plugging more lessons on climate change, financial prudence, and health will congest a curriculum that has not yet been tested for its ability to address students in their context. Not all classes have been designed so that students can see how knowledge fits into their experiences.
Water is everywhere, even in our idiomatic expressions—but the most appropriate one today is perhaps that which is often quoted from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
Coleridge’s poem is about a sailor’s tale of his tragic voyage. He speaks of how his ship was once caught in peaceful waters beneath an unforgiving sun, where his crew dies of thirst in a cursed sea. There is water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.
But what led to this tragedy? The mariner blames himself: He shot down an albatross that led them through a storm and, the crew presumes, to safety. Though trivial, it is a crime that haunts him throughout the poem, enough for the crew to punish him by hanging it around his neck.
Like all good poems, “The Rime” can be interpreted as both a prophecy of humanity’s undoing and a mirror to nature unchanging.
It is a reminder that people are sometimes forced into situations that they can neither control nor understand. They must find ways to survive, though they might be stigmatized. The farmer whose family survives on salt and rice, the mother from the slums who feeds her children instant noodles. They bear their own albatross around their necks.
It is a reminder that we are at the mercy of nature, and if we cannot vanquish inequality, then all of us are poor.
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