Written by Kate French

We all agree and understand that water is intrinsic to human existence and without it, life on earth will become extinct.  Simply put: water is life.  Less understood is that water has also been used a tool of oppression.  In the 1960s, police used water cannons to prevent black Americans from campaigning for basic human rights.  In the early 2000’s, the CIA reinstituted water boarding to torture their detainees and coerce false confessions in the name of national security. And recently, police officers in Ashville, North Carolina destroyed caches of bottled water set up for protesters fighting for justice in 90 degree heat.

Protestors in Birmingham, Alabama, USA, on 3 May 1963, being hit by a high-pressure water hose being used to disperse people during a civil rights protest (Charles Moore, Black Star Publishing Company)

As anthropogenic climate change and resource mismanagement stress aquifers around the world, water as a source of conflict has come to the forefront of our discussions here at GWA, and we feel that now is the time to have the important discussions regarding these water-based conflicts at home.

Regimes across the world understand a basic truth of oppression: people fighting to fulfill their most basic needs have little energy left to overthrow their oppressors. Police officers that destroy water at a medic station understand this as well. They know that in denying protesters access to water they are making it fundamentally harder to do what they came to do. They are trying to prevent the people from wielding their right to protest. Donations of water are a sign of solidarity, and by destroying them, the police officers are engaging in a symbolic act of violence.

Police officers destroy water bottles at a medic tent set up for protestors in Asheville, N.C., on June 2, 2020 (Asheville Citizen Times)

This symbolic violence is reflected around the country in less transparent ways.  With well-known examples like Flint’s water crisis and local problems like Philadelphia’s persistent peak rates of lead poisoning in specific neighborhoods, we take in such news about water without fully understanding its impact. Clean water is a right, contaminated water an oppression. It is not the physical force of water cannons or dehydration during protests, but the chronic health issues and lost time at work. It’s the stunted growth and missed school due to a water-borne illness. The lack of access to safe, clean water is insidious, rising to the level of long-term violence.

Protestors fighting for civil rights seek justice, change, and growth for their communities.  Just like the civil rights protestors of the 1960s and beyond, communities bearing the burden of contaminated water are fighting for their basic human right to clean, clear, and safe water.

Clean water is our right; to receive anything less is to live a compromised life.

It is time that the United States stands for clean water, stands for the lives water nurtures, that is, each and every one of the planet’s citizens, and stands with those who would fight to protect it.

On September 24, 2020, we at GWA are hosting an online conference on Water and Peace. This conference will explore the idea that water as a source of life can also become a source of conflict. At the conference, we will ask such questions as:

Can a body of water be owned by a country? A community? A people?

How do we share water across borders?

How can we face anthropogenic climate change head on? 

What are the lingering threats of climate change from droughts and desertification to monsoons and mismanagement of our dwindling resources?

The Water and Peace conference is a chance to deepen our understanding of water’s role in global conflict and global peace.

Register now. 

Kate French is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, holding a B.A. in Linguistics with a minor in International Development. As a member and former conference coordinator of the Global Water Alliance, she now works with public health in West Africa. Her past work on inequities in sanitation and waste management in informal settlements led her to pursue further projects in WASH sustainability. Recently, she has been focused on incorporating her experience in education into new WASH outreach projects.   

The opinions posted on this blog are those of the author.  To facilitate discussion of the myriad complexities surrounding water, GWA posts blogs and op-eds without determining the legality or validity of the positions set forth in each post.