You know what strikes me hardest when I come home from a less developed country?
The abundance of clean drinking water here.
We shower with drinking water. We watch gallons of it spill down the drain while we wait for the water to heat up. We water our plants and lawns with clean drinking water. We wash our cars with it. We flush it down the toilet.
Also, we have toilets.
When I was in Nepal, I read that one flush of a toilet used as much water as some families have access to in a week. I became so conscious of my water use that I felt guilty whenever I encountered a flush toilet (usually just in our hotels), and was happy to use more, uh, basic facilities.
Water is the thing that gets me. I travel to places where you can’t safely drink the tap water. You bring a filter or iodine tablets, or buy bottled water, or stick to tea and hope the water’s been boiled long enough. You feel ridiculous brushing your teeth with bottled water. You wonder if it’s safe to eat that unpeeled apple or cool sliced cucumbers that might’ve been rinsed in contaminated water. You panic over the unexpected ice cubes in your drink, fish them out with a fork, sneak them into the potted plant next to you, and hope that little critters hadn’t already melted out and started swimming around your cocktail. Or, if they did, hope that the alcohol kills them before they make you sick.
And even though you’re cautious, you get sick anyway, and you deal. And you know that when you get home, you’ll get better.
But the people that live there are already home. They don’t go anywhere where the water is suddenly clean.
In the Chinese towns of Dali and Lijiang, canals run through town and along the sides of the streets. People do their laundry in the canals, wash their hair, dip their hands to wash off the last crumbs of lunch. They wash their vegetables in the canal water. And they brush their teeth with it.
It’s not clean water. But it’s what they have, so it’s what they use. They’re stuck with it.
Since World War II, according to change.org, contaminated water has killed more people around the globe than all wars and other forms of violence combined. Today, almost a billion people across the world lack clean drinking water, and 2.6 billion do not have access to basic sanitation.
Yesterday, the United Nations General Assembly declared that access to clean water and sanitation is a basic human right.
Guess who abstained from the vote? The United States. Canada. The United Kingdom. Australia.
To be fair, abstaining countries “said the resolution could undermine a process in the UN’s Human Rights Council in Geneva to build a consensus on water rights.” Which is supportive of water rights in a different way. No one voted against yesterday’s resolution. And it passed.
When I get back from a trip, I often find myself staring at the faucet. If I turn the handle, clean water will pour out. More than I could possibly drink, more than my whole family could drink if they were standing behind me. I picture the pipes linking my faucet to my neighbor’s faucet to their neighbors’ faucets, a whole network that carries this clear, clean water all across my town, my state, and beyond. I’m fascinated. It’s brilliant. It’s life-saving.
What more, I ask, could I possibly need?
For everyone else to have the same.