05 December 2012

With 1 billion without access to safe water, is climate change just a distractor?

This was a conversation I was engaged in last night at Wondo Ganet College, Ethiopia. In my dissertation, I don't want to include anything about climate change issues because to me the present challenges related to the nexus of freshwater, human, and environment systems are crucial issues on their own. In other words - the fact that there are so many people without access to safe, clean water is a human rights violation and needs to be addressed with appropriate applications of technology.

I have seen, in the months I've spent in Ethiopia, so many examples of people having to make due with the water they have available. This includes drinking unfiltered water directly from rivers full of sediment and unknown pollutants and/or bacteria, people waiting in long lines at a common tap or pump, women and children gathering water from muddy puddles or road runnoff.

In the west, we turn on our tap.

Why are people forced into such situations? Why would people live in an area without access to safe drinking water? Has the water always been unsafe? Is it a choice? Is it a political problem? Is it an environmental problem? Is it an economic problem? Is it a technical problem? Is it a security problem? Is it a little bit of everything? Are there simple, low tech solutions? I believe the answer is yes to at least the last 2 questions.

I am not sure about the answers to these other questions though, but I do think that the question of safe drinking water access can and should be addressed. Immediately. Instead of spending our time and resources on these big problems of climate change that we feel unable to really control, why aren't we starting in small steps - addressing real problems? Another expensive study on atmospheric or ocean changes is sexy, but how is it really practical when you consider human suffering at the cost of these adventures?

Perhaps we've missed something important. Perhaps we will find that small changes turn into big changes - climate change control may be addressed from taking care of controlling what we have the power to control. The little things like land-use management or drinking water quality.

In a country like Ethiopia, where you throw a rock and hit an international consultant, I find these realities bordering on the absurd if not fully planted in the absurd.

What are we doing standing by while people fetch water from a muddy puddle on the side of the road? I am not sure, but I know I am also guilty. I want to see change, and we should all want change. There are ways to achieve this that aren't too complicated...or impossible.