I saw a cartoon the other day. A man and a woman hold hands at the water’s edge, an old gnarled tree to the right of them, while off in the distance is a small silhouette of another person standing on a bluff, the only other human in sight. The man remarks: “It’s too crowded. Let’s get out of here.”
During these pandemic times, I can relate to that sentiment. Last week, my daughter and I went to the mall to pick up her phone that had been repaired — the first time for me since the pandemic started. I began teleworking in March, eliminating my commute, and other than going to the grocery store and visiting a few friends who have also been quarantining, my husband and I don’t venture out. Solo riding my bike and walking the dog have become highlights of my day. The mall operated at a third of its capacity, yet we felt crowded and couldn’t wait to leave.
For 15 years or so the book The Population Explosion sat on my shelf; I couldn’t get myself to read it. The doomsday predictions were most frightening and very real and the authors advocated controlling the population or suffer the consequences.
Population control is a sensitive issue almost everywhere, with governments engaging all kinds of policy instruments, influenced by religious norms and opinions, by market manipulation of birth control technologies or taxation schemes. On occasion, governments abide by that most modern of concepts: reproductive health rights.
In the U.S., reproductive rights are a hot issue and some aspects, particularly a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body, seem destined to remain forever as the most inciting of them. It is, perhaps, the single greatest issue in many people’s minds when choosing a political candidate. Asking people to have fewer children because the world is not going to be able to house, feed, and water the next billion of us is a rationalization that falls on deaf ears; no one wants to talk about it. The only proof up until now for seeing population growth curtailed is relentless and consistent improvement of women’s education and women’s full participation in the labor market, at all rungs, and in all disciplines.
Yet, regardless of whether we will “plateau”, the problem of over-population of our environment still remains where almost 8 billion of us need to eat and imbibe and deal with the waste streams that are the result of our eating and imbibing. Our current exploitation of the environment to satisfy the needs of humans everywhere is unsustainable. Consider the ramifications of climate change — desertification of areas that used to be able to grow food; sea level rise causing the reduction of arable land and the destruction of private property; and increased lack of access to clean water either because we’ve filled in the streams, the rivers have dried up, or our assimilative capacity has been reached. Under this doomy, gloomy scenario, the question remains: what, exactly, is going to give? Will we shoulder the tasks at hand with science, a common sense of sharing, or shall we also fall back onto that old method of solving conflicts and thinning the population: war, genocide, famine, pandemics?
The United Nations was formed to create platforms to build a common sense of sharing and the UN is the foremost promotor of science in helping us all achieve some equity in our lives. Yet, we are witnessing another round of divisiveness in humanity’s history, not only within nations, like the U.S., but worldwide, and it feels like eternity since we reached consensus on anything. We experience anger and vitriol spewing from all sides, fake news and alternative facts about science, politics, and all manner of life, sowing enmity and confusion or con-census, and worst of all, it doesn’t look like things are going to calm down anytime soon. In many nations demonstrations and protests have become almost daily occurrences. Here in the U.S. people legally protesting are now being arrested under the Sedition Act, threatening to undermine our first amendment rights, while rebel rousers and in some instances armed militia are upsetting peaceful protests which brings more armed governmental forces to the scene to quell the craziness.
All the while I keep asking myself the question: do we have the stomach to evolve or will we simply revolve, again, through the same old tired tension-filled issues only to end up back where we started and still unable to fix the problems. War and warring shouldn’t be options anymore, but can we shelve that habit?
These are truly scary times, but not unprecedented. Learning from history, let’s use these times to figure out a better path forward for ourselves, our friends and our families, indeed, for all stakeholders. Let’s focus on something that is an existential, critical need for each of us. Let’s focus on managing water, and forge peaceful paths and methods that include unfettered access to WASH — water, sanitation and hygiene.
We at the Global Water Alliance are dedicated to #WaterandPeace. Join us and our partners, The Water Center and Drexel Peace Engineering, on Thursday, September 24, 2020 for an online conference from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. with speakers from around the world to talk about ways to improve equity-for-all in accessing clean, safe water, and establishing peace-driven governance systems for management of watersheds and water basins around the globe.
GWA’s Water and Peace conference is a preparatory event for the World Water Forum in Senegal, Dakar in 2021 and marks the first regional discussion among international water experts aimed at developing a toolkit of policy, governance, and technology strategies to present in Dakar next year. The focus will be on equity and involvement of all stakeholders in each watershed, while addressing the urgency of climate change.
To navigate a world with billions of people, we will need strategies for resilience and sustainability as well as contingencies for the future -- and we need to do so together.
Pam Lazos is a writer, blogger, environmental lawyer, and on the Board of the Global Water Alliance, an organization that envisions a world where all people have access to safe drinking water and sanitation.