Today I am thankful for water. For clean drinking water. For flushing toilets. For beaches and waterways which are safe to swim in. Last week I was staying with family in Sydney, where current kitchen renovations mean there is no operational stove, oven or kitchen sink. While cooking dinner, we mused about the minor inconvenience of having to wash dishes in the bathroom instead of conveniently in the kitchen.
At the same time, I am also reminded that having readily available clean water and sanitation is something that many people in the world do not have access to. While I was in Sydney, I checked out Water Stories: The global water crisis in pictures, a photographic exhibition which is currently showing at Sydney’s Botanic Gardens. It tells stories of pollution from leather tanneries in India; changes to river flows and the associated impacts on people and aquatic species from the Three Gorges Dam in China; and water borne diseases such as cholera thriving in Pakistan and Nigeria from poor sanitation and open defecation practices. These stories and more are shown through a series of vivid photographs and descriptions of people interacting with the water environment in various ways.
Pakistan: Women have too walk three hours a day to the nearest borehole, where water levels are continually becoming lower, making it more difficult to haul water to the surface.
The exhibition also highlights some success stories, which demonstrate improvements in people’s living standards and waterway health through work done by great organisations such as Water Aid and WWF. The restoration of Lake Hong, one of the largest lakes in China is a prime example. The lake was cut off from the Yangzte River in the 1960s which resulted in changes to the water flows and ecology of the lake. It became polluted, affecting many of the lake’s fish species and people that depended on the lake for their survival. The work done by WWF here has been effective in revitalising the lake’s ecosystem, while actively involving the local community in the process. Despite this story and others, it is clear there is still much more work to be done to ensure that Goal 6 (Ensure access to water and sanitation for all) of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals is met.
As a westerner, it can be all too easy to look at photographs and stories such as these and feel sorry for the people and their situation without considering one’s own relationship to these stories. I believe it is important to be mindful of one’s own impact on water both nearby and afar. For many in the developing world, inaccessibility to clean water and sanitation present a real threat to survival on a daily basis. For my family, the slight disruption of cooking and washing procedures during house renovations does not threaten our health or well-being.
There are water stories in our own backyards which may seem more relevant to us. Closer to home for me, the ‘swimmability’ of rivers in New Zealand has become a key topic in this year’s national election due to growing public concern over high levels of river contamination attributed to both urbanisation and intensive dairy farming. In Australia, there is on-going dialogue on how to solve the widespread sustainability issues associated with over allocation of water in the Murray-Darling River Basin. Water issues in countries such as China, could also be linked to lifestyles in western countries, as consumers buy many goods manufactured in an increasingly industrialised China. There, widespread pollution problems are affecting the health of local populations.
While awareness of these issues is important, what is even more so, is to recognise the potential they have for bringing people together to work with nature and collectively solve some of these problems. China has an opportunity to become a world leader in creating clean waterways in harmony with healthy cities. New Zealand has the potential to live up to its ‘clean, green’ image, to restore waterways in a manner which allows recreation and cultural needs to flourish alongside a prospering economy. Am I perhaps being too optimistic?!
We must remember that we are all dependent on water to live, whether we drink purified water at the turn of a tap or walk several miles to haul water from a borehole. The water stories of people in India, China, Nigeria and Pakistan told through this exhibition are not just their stories, they are everyone’s stories. We are connected with these water stories whether we can see their impacts or not. And we also have our own water stories to tell.
Water Stories is on for another day in Sydney (finishes 5th September) and will be displaying at Brisbane’s South Bank, 15th to 26th September, 2017.