That Dirty Water

May 27, 2010

By Ben
It's been 38 days since the BP oil spill. And I've noticed that even as politicians and BP executives continue to struggle over the details of the spill and how to stop it, other groups -- conservationists, greentech companies, green-energy lobbyists, policy makers -- are using this contamination as a catalyst for conversations about what the spill teaches us and what we can do better.
The contamination of the Boston water supply last month offered a similar opportunity to think about the bigger issues raised by a single event.
On Saturday, May 1, one of the first hot days of the year, I was enjoying a standard brunch with friends., Because of the heat, we were all swigging back multiple cups of water. Until, that is, the restaurant was raided by several police officers demanding that the manager remove all tap water from the tables. An odd, modern day prohibition? No—severe water contamination and lots of it. A 150-foot long pipe had ruptured, causing more than 265 million gallons of contaminated water to enter Boston's water supply. All in all, the contamination impacted 2 million individuals across 38 municipalities. Consequently, a three-day water ban was placed over the city of Boston, leaving citizens without access to fresh water. It made me realize how much we take fresh water as a given. While we may be a population obsessed with bottled water, ultimately, we know that we can turn on a sink and have fresh, pure water on demand. More than a billion are not that lucky.
Boston has historically had one of the purest supplies of drinking water in the country. So much so that it is one of only five U.S. cities exempt from the Environmental Protection Agency's filtration requirement. Yet, during the ban, we could not brush our teeth, wash dishes, water our animals, wash laundry or drink from the supply upon which we've become so mindlessly dependent. I say this with a tremendous sense of guilt, but in many ways the past couple of days have been otherworldly.
Coffee shops, ubiquitous throughout the city, ported handwritten signs, declaring they could no longer serve coffee. Citizens bemoaned this inconvenience and businesses like Dunkin Donuts lost an average of $13,000 per day by store. Convenience stores were stripped of their bottle water supply as citizens bulked up their coffers, unsure of when the ban would be lifted. Ironically, for myself and so many, it was the small things that I missed the most, like grabbing a cup of coffee on the way to work. Which made me realize all the more how privileged we are to have such access to clean water. The biggest inconvenience I suffered was having to prepare coffee at work. I knew the water would come back. That it would be clean, safe and drinkable.
While the water ban was more or less a three-day adventure for Boston, it's a day-to-day reality for a huge percent of the world. The IRC estimates 1.1 billion, or one in six, people rely on unsafe drinking-water sources on a daily basis. This inequity, resulting from an inadequate access to water supply and the consequent impact on sanitation and hygiene, leads to the death of more than 1.5 million children each year. Pure and simple, clean water should be a guarantee for everyone.
It's evident that a united, global effort is needed to guarantee this immense need is met. As an individual, where do you start? A great place to begin is to educate you on the realities. World Water Day (which passed on March 22) offers a rich array of resources to learn about this inequity and mobilize. The Water Project, which works to brings clean water to Africa and India expands on these resources and offers a donation option.
Imagine if those three days were a lifetime and bottled water was not an option. For some, that day is already here.
It's time to act. What will you do?

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