On Water and Justice

Looking out my office window, I watched some workers open up a fire hydrant and walk away. For the better part of the day I watched a 50-foot gusher of water land uselessly in the road. Must’ve had their reasons. “Cleaning out the lines,” I figured. Someday I’ll ask them.

A month ago, Grand Rapids, Michigan experienced its worst flooding in recorded history. The evening news showed pictures of water half-way up office building windows. From their offices people watched carp and catfish swimming by as if in an aquarium.

Not long ago, twenty-two inches of rain dumped in the mountains south of Port-au-Prince in the course of just a couple of days. The resulting flooding was awful and destroyed the majority of their crops in that region.

A few years ago, an entire village on Haiti’s mainland was wiped out from the torrents of a river, swollen from hurricane rains that jumped its banks and took out everything in its path.

In the United States alone, we spend more than 20 billion dollars every year on bottled water. $20 billion, with a “b”.

I’ve been thinking about water lately.

The way I see it, the world has plenty of water: Lakes, rivers, and oceans. Underground aquifers and atmospheric moisture, I’m pretty sure there’s plenty of H2O.

Sure, most of it is salty, but we know how to desalinate.  A lot of it is dirty and impure, but we know how to clean it. We talk all the time about how dry the island of La Gonave is, but, every year, tropical storms and hurricanes dump massive quantities of rain, causing torrential flooding down the slopes on all sides of the island. I’ve seen maps of the island’s underground aquifers and it looks to me like there’s plenty of water underground. Surrounding the island are a gazillion trillion gallons of water.

I recently returned from the island of La Gonave, finally emerging from her dry season, where I saw people wearing old surgical masks because of all the dust, and witnessed people throwing bowls of water on the road in front of their homes in an attempt to keep the dust at bay. I returned from a land where people traipse for miles and for hours, every day of their lives, in pursuit of water to drink. Unsafe water at that.

I returned, as I always have, to my life of flush toilets and underground sprinklers and dog water dishes always filled with clean water from the kitchen tap fifteen feet away. It continues to affect me.

Here’s where I am…

First, I don’t feel guilt.  I do feel bad, and a bit mad that homes on La Gonave don’t all have clean, running water and mine does. But guilt? No. The water I bring up from my well to wash my dog does not somehow steal from La Gonave’s underground aquifers.

Second, I am thankful for the blessing of clean (and close!) water in my own life. I try not to take clean and close water for granted, knowing that, for most of the world, it’s not this way.

I guess what I wrestle with is injustice. Not injustice in the sense that some sinister water lord is somehow controlling who in the world gets water and who doesn’t. Injustice in the sense that I have ample and immediate access to all the water I want, and much of the world does not, for whatever reasons. Injustice that, while billions have no clean water to drink, the world has the technologies and resources and money to fix it.

I will continue to flush and sprinkle and shower as usual, and within reason, convinced that the water I use in no way steals water from places like La Gonave. But I’ll also not quell the sense of obligation I feel to do whatever I can to make things right for people whose lives are hard.

Doing what we can to make things right. Is this not the stuff of justice?

I’m no water engineer but I do know that falling rain is clean and not salty and, to me, catching it and storing it and using it just makes sense. Call me simple-minded, but doesn’t building rain gutters and water cisterns sound like a good idea for a future La Gonavian business?

Can’t good people of the world come together in agreement to make right the wrongs that are in our power to make right?

This is the stuff of justice.