[graphics – Arianna Rich]

by Dr. Christiaan Morssink

Water literacy at the community level is much more than measuring, assessing and improving the literacy of a multitude of households that together make up a community. Even if each household has it’s own water supply system that is unique and not shared (e.g. not groundwater, or piped in water), and even if each household would have a unique, not shared, waste handling, the households still share in the handling of stormwater as they occupy space in the topography of a community. Indeed, at the community level we have several other elements to weave into the assessment whether the community level water literacy is adequate. We have to grasp that WASH management at the community needs to include WASH consumption as part of our livelihood, our economic and social activities, whether that pertains to restaurants, agriculture, industry, health care, education, sports, etc. We also need to understand the forms of WASH infrastructure we develop into our built environment, and how we assure safe water for drinking and food making, as well as how we handle waste and wastewater. Moreover, we need to have a grasp on how storm water is handled by the community as a whole, and how protection from water is organized and implemented. And we need to have a handle on who does what in the WASH market, how that market is regulated to assure good WASH in the whole, and what is done to oversee those regulations. And as WASH at the community level is a commons, we need to understand the role of all stakeholders, and how the stakeholders organize the governance of that commons. Let’s discuss these issues a bit more.

Whether the community is a borough, town, or metropole, activities take place in those communities that I like to label socio-economic and culturally relevant dynamics, in which households are nests and retreats, and other things become identifiers, such as all that what makes household members productive members of the community. Children as students implies a teaching connection, most often a school, and implies teachers and roads/pathways to get to the school. Here WASH applies to schools, including the buildings themselves, but also to roads that bring you there. The same applies for markets, recreational facilities, churches, and libraries. WASH happens and is organized in and between these entities.

[photo — pam lazos]

Most communities, even the most modest of hamlets, have space for a town square, sport fields for soccer, or cricket, baseball. Almost every community will have a park or other playground of sorts. Recreation and sports are happening in communities and the relationship with WASH needs to be understood. A golf course will need irrigation, special fertilizers and grasses, and run-off form such courses need to be well-monitored. A soccer field, to use an American term, requires less maintenance and could be understood as a well leveled meadow most of the time. However, it is also a good space for absorbing rain for replenishing groundwater levels, if the topsoil and the substrata are not compacted. Some communities even have gone to great lengths and have created water reservoirs under the soccer fields within the rings of stadiums. Other measures like tree cover indexes and heat island effects are used to identify the “green” state of a community and are linked in many ways to the WASH assessment of a community.

[photo – pam lazos]

Economic activities are happening in the community. In most communities, the water consumption of commercial and industrial entities far outstrips that of households, and very much so if old-fashioned agriculture is practiced in the communities. Industrial use of water may demand special characteristics of water that go way beyond the label “safe” and require water that is close to pure H2O. What industry does with water is one thing, the fact that industry produces waste and wastewater is a whole other matter. Indeed, modern water pollution is in large part related to industrial and commercial activities, that use many synthetic compounds and materials that far outstrip the old standards developed when industry used mostly “natural ingredients”. And what makes the water “safe”? Chlorine added, at what amounts, and how, and what is the acceptable relative risk ration that the community applies. Is fluoride (still) added at the water purification plant if such exists? My own dentist, when asked, had no idea. The interface between water, economic activities, energy, public health, fire-fighting systems, weather events, overall safety, all should be reflected in the ways the community governs the commons of H2O.

[image credit — Alaska Public Media]

Governance of the commons implies an arrangements of sorts in the community, that is acceptable to the stakeholders and includes processes for oversight, instructions to or agreements with stakeholders, appointment of controllers and venues for corrective actions and compliance. One shall not dig into a levee, irrigation systems shall be kept in a state of flow, fire hydrants are meant for fighting fires and shall be protected and kept accessible. Downspouts should exhaust water into storm drains or designated fields, not overflow onto other peoples property. Building inspectors shall have police authority, etc. In the Philadelphia Yellow Pages, plumbing companies advertise that “city violations are corrected.” In Amman Jordan, plumbing companies hire female plumbers to do house calls and repairs, negating the need for husbands to be home when a plumbing emergency arises.The political system that is in place in a community, whether a princedom or a council of elders or a collective of elected representatives, shall play an important role in structuring the governance of our H2O. In most places such system will delegate the governance to committees, an authority, even sometimes a private enterprise. That delegation can be far reaching, to the point of “hands-off,” but it can never be obscured, denied, or wished away. And when a higher-level political platform in the system steps in, like in the case of Flint, Michigan, that delegation becomes stressed and can lead to full blown conflicts. Indeed, the commons of water shall be governed by the community, and none but the community.

Measuring and assessing water literacy at the community level brings on a good understanding of the division of labor that exists in the economy of the community, the political and public policy machinery that operates in that community and how that community arranges its built environment, its public financing system, and handles the infrastructure as informed by weather and topographical conditions. Size of the community will play a big role, demographic density and economic “drivers” in the community become important variables to include in any assessment. And we need to realize that each community exists in a landscape and political system that includes many other communities. Hence comparative analysis of communities re: water issues becomes a feature of measuring the literacy at this level.

For example, in 2018 a study done at Utah State university on water main breaks in North America found that overall pipe breaks were up by 27% in six years. In Detroit Michigan, the water shut off policies became so aggressive that even the United Nations declared the policies a human rights violation.  In Baltimore a NAACP study found study found that in 2019 water bills exceed two percent of black median income in 118 of the city’s 200 census tracts; 65 percent of the black population lives in these tracts. In five tracts, four of which are majority-black, water will cost 6 to 8 percent of black median income; and 200 African American households’ water bills will be over 2 percent of their income in Baltimore. 

Indeed, assessing water literacy at the community level, while not done much in comparison to literacy at the individual level, has great value for identifying where the needs for literacy improvements are high, what problems in water governance directs a city council to learn more and adapt policies, etc. Professional training and certifications are mostly informed by the needs of the community as a whole, not just by the sum of its households. There is one more level of assessing water literacy and that pertains to the interactions between communities, most importantly within the watershed, but also as they relate to dotting the shorelines along bays, and seas and oceans.  Stay tuned.

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