The People’s Water

2,899 total words    

12 minutes of reading

Listen to the rain
Watch the movement of a stream
Hear the babble of a brook
Tune your heart to the rhythm of ocean waves

— Betsy Damon

Water dropsWater is life

My upcoming book The People’s Water begins with “A Journey with Water,”which tells the troubles and triumphs of galvanizing communities and restoring water systems through my experience as an artist and activist. The second part of the book is the “Toolkit,” which invites readers to embark on their own journey with water. It covers effective organizing, team building, and citizen empowerment, enhancing understanding with fun and easy-to-read graphics, diagrams, and cartoons. It explores nuts and bolts topics—learning about a community’s waters, mapping our water systems, calculating the water bank of a community, and implementing micro- and macro-level solutions to water problems. (See the accompanying article, “A Water Toolkit.”)

Water: An Introduction

Join me on a journey with water. Water is the miraculous molecules that shape and sustain all life on earth. Water is also the connective tissue of all living systems. Like blood vessels in the human body, it forms the veins of the earth. Tune your brain (which is 78 percent water) into these molecules that work tirelessly, constantly connecting and reconnecting, creating an endless pulse. This pulse exists in every living form. Remarkably, this pulse, enabled by the hydrogen atom’s immediate impulse to connect, initiates the endless and fascinating circular motions of water. This pulse enables water to be self regenerating. Water does not naturally degrade; its degradation is a side effect of concerted human efforts.

Water has taught me critical lessons about my place as a human being sharing this planet. These are lessons about inherent connections, collaborations, and relationships. It has invited me into a deepening respect for the fundamental needs, pace, and space of being alive and regenerating. These needs are my needs, your needs, the needs of our families and communities, and the earth’s needs.

River current carving down rockWater does not adapt to life: life adapts to water

Humans have always interacted with water, sometimes with respect and skill, and sometimes with indifference and disregard. Science and technology have been celebrated as vehicles of liberation and progress, and also rebuked as instruments of oppression. Urban living increasingly benefits from the ability to deliver water and remove waste to treatment plants. New innovations integrating engineering, chemistry and biology allow communities to reuse wastewater, recycle waste and evolve renewable energies. On the other hand, the extensive conversion of streams, rivers, and runoff into a system of concrete ditches and pipes has weakened our water’s intrinsic resilience, disabled its flexibility and led to disconnection, control and commodification. This is called single purpose design. It is a response to one threat or need, and the potential harm caused is proportionate to its scale. Single purpose designs do not react effectively to sudden change such as geological shifts, urbanization or climate change.

While initially these water projects may have been relatively benign, as the population expanded and cities grew beyond their water capacities, ever more heroic efforts to deliver and remove water have left us with inflexible systems that disregard the needs of the wider environment.

In the world today, over fifty thousand towering dams choke more than half the world’s rivers, not to mention hundreds of thousands of smaller dams. Dams have their uses, but they are inflexible structures with a limited lifespan—and too many have taken over the complex systems that sustain this earth. These structures intended to solve energy and agricultural challenges have created many unforeseen difficulties.

We have straitjacketed rivers, drained lakes, used up aquifers, and turned wetlands into dust bowls. We continue to dislocate vast amounts of water to maintain an illusion of progress. It is our habit to use water as a sewer.

Most people living and educated in capitalist systems experience water as something bought, owned, and sold back to citizens. 663 million people—one in ten—lack access to safe water. Is there enough water for all? Is worldwide water scarcity truly due to global population growth? Or has private industry created “scarcity” by polluting water supplies and then charging people to buy back potable water? Water is the new gold. Its speculation fuels mass privatization. Commodification of water is possibly a more serious threat to life on earth than extraction of fossil fuels. By treating water as a commodity we evade the obligation to understand water’s role in creating and sustaining all life. Meanwhile the public is more knowledgeable about robots and space travel than about where their water comes from and how it is used.

We cannot take care of what we have forgotten, what no longer exists in our minds. We cannot take care of rivers if every stream is buried in a pipe or polluted, if we have never seen a river running. We cannot take care of the foundation of life if we have forgotten where it is found.

We can put on the brakes if communities large and small work together to restore resilience, complexity, and flexibility to water systems, placing water as the foundation of planning and design. By getting involved in daylighting a stream, restoring a river, updating or dismantling a dam, we can witness how rapidly life returns: fish spawn where they may have not for decades; plants that have not been seen in centuries suddenly pop up. Advocating for the return of drinking water fountains on campuses and city streets will reintroduce a public supply of water.

Water’s own capacity to regenerate is always giving us hope and leading the way. It is essential to follow water and to understand that design and engineering must recognize that water is more complex than three stages in the hydraulic cycle. Water is not linear in nature, nor is it inanimate or nonliving. Water contains memory and is complexity in action. A living thing, water has more facets than the rarest jewel. Why does everyone want a water view? Why does every religion have water ceremonies? Why does lying beside a babbling brook sooth us? Why can improving drinking quality water heal us? Water goes beyond physics and chemistry: it is also medium, message, and memory.

One must take into account the many virtues of water when designing and planning. Single-purpose design serves neither the ecosystem nor water itself. Separating bodies of water to manage them better is usually a mistake. Water is a fundamental model of cooperation, flexibility and complexity which offers real wisdom to the human community.

On my journey, water has been both the teacher and the subject. Water led me to understand profoundly that connectivity is essential within every biological system. It is essential to remember that all solutions and policies must serve everyone, all life and living systems. Our best model is the nature of water itself. Just as water is strongest when it is diverse and complex, our communities are most innovative and powerful when everyone is included. Diversity implies variety in many ways including economic class, race, religion, skills and knowledge. All these processes depend on empowering individuals and their communities to have a voice and take action.

Rooting ourselves in nature invites us to examine the dominant legal system which has evolved to award private ownership. Ownership is protected regardless of the impact on people and living systems, but water, air and earth are resources for all life. As an earth advocate I envision a system of values that is complex enough to help us properly care for and share this life and this planet, one that understands our interdependence with the earth and the species we live with. This perspective is becoming more common as the crisis is becoming more evident. Laws that protect endangered species were an important step, but that is not enough. A hopeful landmark in our time is that countries are beginning to declare water as a human right and find ways to implement this as a reality. Ecuador, Slovenia, Bolivia, and South Africa are leading the way. India has declared that the Ganges and the Yamuna rivers have rights of personhood. New Zealand has declared that one of its rivers has similar rights, in the tradition of the Maori. The Maori say, “We are the rivers and the rivers are us.”

Water is a right, not a commodity Water is often taken for granted. Yet all life, including people, needs water to survive. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing . . .”

Collecting water in a bottle from a spigot Collecting water with hands from a spring

At this moment in the twenty-first century, the earth faces many challenges. The human population is growing, global water consumption is increasing, and climates are dramatically changing due to global warming. We are facing the reality of healthy—or even drinkable—water being a scarce resource. In 2010, the United Nations Ambassador to Bolivia, a country that has experienced the devastating effects of water privatization, put forth a resolution declaring water to be a human right.

The United Nations resolution 64/292 for water as a human right was passed in 2010 with the support of 122 countries. It states that “the human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.” (UN CESC – General Comment 15, paragraph 2). To declare a human right is to make governing bodies responsible for respecting, protecting, and guaranteeing these rights. Under the 2010 U.N. Resolution, governments must provide their citizens with access to safe and affordable water for personal and domestic use. Citizens need to be educated about their rights in order to hold their governments accountable. As more pressure is being put on our water resources, this duty of accountability is very important. Yet the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom have not yet committed to the principle of water as a human right. To demand money for water is to demand money for life.

Water is being treated more as a profitable commodity. Governments and companies in control of water resources stand to make money by exploiting a manufactured crisis of scarcity. The problem with this is that the human need for quality water is not negotiable. While some of us may have some dollar bills in our pockets, there is no way for trees, birds, insects, and fish to pay. Water is a human right. Water is the right to life.

A Journey with Water: Source

Every person has a water journey, for no one can go through life living without water. In my search to know water, I discovered that water has the most powerful structure of any molecule. There is nothing like H2O, no work can be done without it. It is flexible, resilient, restorative, always seeking to return to a life giving form. I have come to respect water as the most aggressively creative force we know, making every detail in our lives and everything that we depend upon possible.

From the moment of conception we all grow floating in a warm liquid. When we are born we are 75 percent water, and as we age we slowly wrinkle up to be 50 to 60 percent water. Each cell in our bodies is 99 percent water, our hearts and brains 75 percent, and our bones 30 percent. There are many ways to measure the waters in our bodies, but water we are. Water is more than a liquid substance that is essential for life; water has been proven to have memory and consciousness.

Water talks to us every day. Often it speaks silently through our bodies: thirst, sweat, heartbeat, and breath. Water gurgles, drips, sloshes, murmurs. It splashes and splatters in our kitchens, bathrooms, laundries, and gardens.

Noticing something you depend on every hour of every day is a challenging and deliberate process. Until I decided to pay attention to water, I was not conscious of how it forms and informs every detail of my life. When I became conscious of water, I entered into the mysteries of life, pulses and flows. What is the connection between water quality and aliveness? How does everything that goes down our drains affect water? Our communities thrive or despair depending on their waters: its availability, and, more importantly, the quality of the available waters. Once I began this journey, I could not turn back.

As a child, I remember playing in puddles, running barefoot in the rain, finding streams with soft green edges and smooth rocks. Across the street from my house was a stream that swelled to overflowing in big rains and then receded to a trickle. I would run to watch this fascinating event. In spring tadpoles emerged at the edges of the stream. I eagerly scooped them up, placed them in a small container and watched as they became frogs to be returned to their creek. Several years later we moved to live near a woody area with a creek. ”Come on guys,” I shouted to the neighborhood gang excitedly. “let’s dam the creek to make a small pond.” There, rolling up our pants and tossing off our shoes, we floated a badly made raft made from branches and twigs that sank under our weight.

From 1945 to 1948 we lived on the hills outside Istanbul, Turkey, where every day a ribbon of blue, the Bosphorus, was in view. We swam in its fresh, cold, salty waters avoiding the barnacles on rocks and enjoying, with that nervous excitement of fear, the rushing tides. While swinging in the supple fig trees in my yard, I imagined swimming across the Bosphorus and walking to China. In summer our water would be turned off for weeks because there was not enough available fresh water. We used all of our water very carefully. We filled every bath tub, pots and bottles, and captured rainwater. Those precious pots of water remain etched in my brain.

Every summer, we escaped the Washington D.C. heat at my great-grandmother’s farm on the coastal town of Plymouth, Massachusetts. My family, cousins, and I swam in saltwater, roamed beaches, and canoed in a freshwater estuary. I would walk for hours on the constantly fascinating edge where the waters cast up treasure and sculpted the sands. On two family trips across the United States of America, I remember drinking from public water sources all along the way and swimming in water holes and creeks. One creek was moving so swiftly that my Dad held me as I tried to swim against the flow. Today it is almost unthinkable to drink from a stream or dip into a creek that you do not know.

Although I have spent about 15 years living and working in places where I boiled my water or suffered the consequences of grabbing an ice drink on the streets, this is a story of a girl who grew up taking water for granted (with one exception, in Turkey). For most of my life water has flowed from taps, toilets have flushed, and bathtubs have filled up. Fresh water without filters was a given; water flowed with such ease that I noticed it only as a monthly bill.

While making an artwork called A Memory of Clean Water in 1985, the paper casting of 250 feet of the Castle Creek, I learned that the waters in Castle Valley, Utah, were polluted as a consequence of agricultural practices and mining. In the process of kneeling for hours in a river bed, I became aware that water creates everything . . . and that I knew nothing about water. Five years after this experience, I was seeking to understand how to go forward with water as the exclusive focus of all my work. I asked myself what would water do—and concluded that water would invite everyone into the project, as collaborators. This meant that although the art projects started out with an instructional workshop, I would not direct what community participants chose to do and how. Each community would need to find their own way, including how to use available funds for their projects. Beginning with small projects—which built consciousness and inspired people to form groups addressing local waters issues—my adventures included organizing a group that saved the Edwards Aquifer; initiating the cleanup of the San Antonio River; and developing bioswales in Portland, Oregon, with a small local school—a project that grew to include a life-transforming visit to a sacred water site in China. Two years later I found myself designing and building a unique park in China, the Living Water Garden, a seven-stage water cleaning park. Since then, it has become clearer to me that we need to have a great gathering of minds and hearts to rapidly change our fracturing of the waters. In Vandana Shiva’s words, “Every ecological crisis is at the end of the day a water crisis.”

After thirty years of learning, trying, and at times succeeding, I have come to understand the real extent of how much we have damaged the foundations of living systems with linear, reductive thinking to suit a materialization of the basics that support life. We live in and depend upon a complex, biodynamic world. This world is naturally regenerative; all parts are connected, and water is the propelling element in all of these connections.


Photo Credits: Betsy Damon, used with permission.

  • Betsy Damon

    Betsy Damon is an artist and founder of Keepers of the Waters, supporting community-based models of water stewardship. Her work includes sculpture, teaching, lectures and workshops. In China, she created the nation's first public art event for the environment as well as the Living Water Garden.
Scroll to Top