by Christiaan Morssink

The Schuylkill River at Market Street

It’s a new year so time to roll up our sleeves and talk about the big topics like water literacy. Did you know the average flow rate of the Delaware river is 11,700 cu ft/s (cubic feet per second) at Trenton, New Jersey and the average discharge of the Schuylkill river is 84.43 m3/s (cubic meter per second). The White Nile contributes about fifteen percent of the total outflow of the Nile and its average flow at Malakal is 924 m3/s (32,600 cu ft/s), a rate 10 times greater than the average flow of the Delaware River. Why do we care? 

When you know the nature of the Delaware or the Schuylkill Rivers, the defining rivers of Philadelphia, you have a mental picture of how big the Nile river actually is. One does not need to go to the Nile to have an opinion. Data like this is needed to understand the political and technological dialogues, our own and others, that occur around managing rivers. Understanding these facts and the corresponding data, especially trends and forecasts regarding climate change, will influence many of our decisions such as where to build, what to channel, how to draw water and in which direction to draw it to/from, among other things.

So it is with water literacy and has been for as long as humanity understood water is life, needed to grow food, to transport, to recreate, to refresh the earth, and even just to watch it fall from the sky. Collectively, water literacy, or knowing water is ancient knowledge, like understanding food, air, wind, fire, and earth. Such knowledge is ingrained with culture, habits, beliefs, and, of course, drama. 

Collectively “knowing of or about health” is less old but has become a much larger part of modern humanity’s body of knowledge. Much more recent literacies, such as financial literacy, computer literacy, digital literacy, and more are becoming dominant globally and are reshaping the national economies, social structures, and dialogue in fundamental ways. Political literacy, a mainstay for any democracy, seems not to penetrate as deeply, whereas the new interest in climate change is much shaped by an ever-growing ecological literacy, especially among young people. 

Indeed, change is happening and fast. Our humanity is becoming ever more interconnected, and population pressure is reaching a tipping point, the economic extraction systems, including “water mining” drive ecological stresses that forecast disasters globally. The changes are touching our existential needs for food, water, and air and in many instances, compromising them. The changes are of such a fundamental nature that we must re-address their literacies and unequal manifestations worldwide.  Take food, for example.  We are witnessing both hunger and food waste, the malnutrition phenomenas of stunted growth, obesity, digestive disorders, and more, while efforts are underway to streamline the modern, global discussion around food literacy.

It is with this understanding that we must re-visit the notion of Water Literacy, taking the whole of a watershed, maybe even the entire planet Earth into account when considering it. We must organize water as part of our built environment and collective need to survive and prosper, and understand water and water literacy as a commons that underlies the capacity to action for all communities that inhabit the watershed; the river basin as well as the ocean’s edges are all important and consequential considerations. In upcoming blogs we will try to de-construct water literacy and build a paradigm to capture the whole of all the parts that go into living with water in modern times. 

For now, Happy New Year and a toast to access to clean water for all.

Dr. Morssink is the President of the Global Water Alliance. His interests are as varied and flowing as water itself, and include: the effects of the built environment on health, elimination of health disparities, hunger, and urban farming, and the campaign to ban and clear landmines and cluster bombs in communities around the world. Water is his first love.