Pere Wihongi and the Just Focus team
In Aotearoa New Zealand it feels like there is water everywhere. It fills our lakes, courses down our rivers and streams, falls from the sky, and the sparkling Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea surrounds our islands.
Maybe it is exactly because we live in a country that has so much water that it is hard for us to fathom how fortunate we are. We take it for granted that water will always flow when we turn on a tap, or flush the toilet. But it is not like this for everyone, and when we look at the global picture we start to understand how precious water really is.
Water for LIFE
Water is a key component in determining the quality of our lives. We drink it, bathe in it, cook and clean with it, nourish our plants and crops, and feed our pets and livestock. Water is life.
There is always the same amount of water moving through the planet within the water cycle, it just goes round and round and round. We drink the same water that our great-great-great-grandparents drank! Only now, we have a problem. We have the same amount of water, but there are more and more people who need it.
The UN states that the basic requirement per person each day is 20 to 50 liters of water. New Zealanders are big water consumers; on average we use 663 litres a day. Compare this to an average of 5 litres used by Cambodians.
But it’s not just about how much water we need, but what sort of water we need. It needs to be free from pollution and other contaminants for us to be healthy. Globally, water quality is declining due to our growing population and pollution from urbanisation, industry and agriculture. Right now 1.1 billion people do not have access to enough safe water and a third of the world’s people live without adequate sanitation (sewage, waste disposal etc).
In Pakistan, for example, almost 40 percent of the population receives water that runs through dirty pipelines, which can pollute the water. Research conducted by the Pakistan Medical Research Council shows that a large number of people with diseases in Pakistan suffer specific health problems because of the consumption of polluted water.
According to the World Health Organisation, 80 percent of sickness and disease in developing countries is a result of unsafe water and lack of sanitation. Children especially are affected. Two million people die every year as a result of diarrhoea, and most of them are children under the age of five.
On March 22 the international community will mark World Water Day. This important day focuses our attention on the water issues and problems facing communities around the world. Each year there is a different theme and this year the focus is water quality, because in order for people and the planet to flourish we need clean, safe water.
What about the environment?
When people don’t have access to enough clean, safe water then it can severely affect their health. The impact on ecosystems without clean water supplies, or any water at all, is also huge. But how is this possible on a planet where the same amount of water is always circulating and renewing itself? What’s going wrong?
Between the impact of agriculture on our water ways, industry consuming and polluting water in its mass production of the machinery, transport and consumer items, and the impact of growing cities on our water supplies, you can take your pick of the environmental issues affecting our water.
The dead zones
Large areas of oxygen-low, life-destroying water, called dead zones, are appearing around the world. One of the world’s largest dead zones, off the coast of the United States, exists because of farms.
Fertilizers used in farming drain into the country’s streams and waterways. With 40 percent of US water systems flowing into the Mississippi River, this means that during the spring and summer months the ‘Mighty Mississippi’ carries, then dumps, equally mighty amounts of fertiliser straight into the sea in the Gulf of Mexico.
And fertiliser does in water exactly what it does on land – it prompts growth. A huge abundance of algae is the result. The problem is, when the algae dies, sinking to the ocean floor, the bacteria that makes it rot also consumes oxygen. What is left is an oxygen-deprived, sea floor wasteland. Any life there either leaves or dies, affecting a huge ecosystem and the livelihoods of thousands of people in the fishing industry.
So what does water mean to people here in Aotearoa NZ?
“Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au”
“I am the river, and the river is me”
Māori people use whakatauki, or proverbs, inherited from our ancestors as inspiration and guidance to help us to understand the world as they saw it. This whakatauki tells us that we should treat nature as we would like to be treated ourselves. Given water has been around for millions of years, this means it definitely deserves our respect!
Tangata Whenua (tangata – people, whenua – land) is the term commonly used to describe the Māori people of Aotearoa. Our whakapapa connections to Papatuanuku (Earth Mother) and Ranginui (Sky Father) imply that we are not just people of the land, but that we were born of the land. Our connection to the land allows us guardianship or Kaitiakitanga over it, as was agreed to in the second article of the Treaty of Waitangi. This means that the world view of Māori in regards to the whenua and wai (water) is that of respect, identity and preservation for future generations.
The water of our ancestors continues to nourish us, so how can we repay?
Bringing the Dead Zone back to life
How do you bring a zone of 7700 square kilometres, (an area just bigger than the entire Northland Region), back from the dead? The environmental version of the FBI, the Environmental Protection Agency, has been running a project to restore and preserve the Gulf of Mexico for 22 years. And it might just be working: 2009’s dead zone was half the size of the decade’s average. That’s a great start.
Last year, a group of scientists and environmental groups also petitioned President Barack Obama. They want him to fully implement a gulf action plan that could reduce fertiliser runoff and restore the wetlands that filter the harmful fertilisers, before they contaminate the river and Gulf. So the dead zone might not be a lost case after all.
The Orangi Pilot Project
The Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) was started in the 1980s in the squatter area of Orangi, in Karachi, Pakistan. It was home to over 1 million people. Started by one man, Akhtar Hameed Khan, the OPP utilised the energy and innovative spirit of local residents to solve their own water and sanitation problems.
At the beginning the project focused on creating sewage and storm water systems, using local materials and labour. Almost 30 years later the project has grown to support the establishment of schools, health clinics, women’s work centres and a credit organisation to finance enterprise projects.
• Celebrate World Water Day at your school, church or at home.
• Think about your own water use. There is more you can do than just turning off the tap while you brush your teeth! For heaps of ideas on ways to save water check out www2.seattle.gov/util/waterbusters
• Support an international campaign or organisation like Water Aid or The Oxfam Water for Survival Programme.