About twelve miles from the Amherst campus lies the Quabbin reservoir, where outdoor enthusiasts go fishing, canoeing and hiking. However, this merry recreation cloaks the reservoir’s checkered history. Quabbin was dug in 1938 as a water supply to meet the rising demands of Boston. Its construction submerged the four towns of Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott. Only the cellars of these towns remain above the reservoir, serving as reminders of the forgotten Atlantis. With the closing of the Amherst reservoir on September 13, the neighboring towns and Amherst College switched to well water supply. Meanwhile, the water in the Quabbin reservoir was feverously sucked by pipes to support the industrial exploits of Boston.
Just three weeks prior, I had moved into my dorm, South. After setting up my room, I wearily stepped into the shower and slightly inched the lever ahead, only to be drenched in freezing cold water. Then I realized: The showers don’t have flow control independent of temperature. Hot water is necessarily linked with a fast flow. Having arrived from a place in India reeling from a heavy drought with daily eight-hour water cuts, I was habituated to using minimal water. So, when finally I stood under the luxurious and zingy shower flow, I felt a little embarrassed. Somewhere, someone did not have water, and I was guilty of ignorantly wasting it.
I had flown 7800 miles across the world. I had left many things behind for a new life. Yet, drought still loomed large in my reality. And that is the case for all of us, because our civilisations depend on the conditional existence of water. Indeed, the Egyptian and Indus Valley civilizations were wiped out due to drought-related causes. In fact, the infamous Dust Bowl, right here in the United states, was one of the driving factors behind the severity of the Great Depression in the 1930s. When Brazil suffered its worst drought in 50 years in 2014, inflation and unemployment shot up, quickly embroiling the nation in political turmoil that remains unresolved. Many say the Syrian Civil War and the resulting refugee crisis have origins in the Syrian Drought of 2006, when many farmers were displaced and were left to seek employment in the cities.
But again, our actions persistently contradict our history: coffee and sugarcane subsidies are still dished out in Brazil and India respectively, despite their being highly resource-intensive crops. Consumers aren’t completely blameless either: The beef consumption of the United States takes up about 190 trillion liters of fresh water. Water wastage is prevalent everywhere, from the length of the showers we take to the number of plates we use. Clearly, we are not learning a historical lesson.
Unsustainable water consumption is among the many necessary evils of our economic system. Natural drought may eventually end up consuming us all, but there is no denying that the many water imbalances today are created by our and our institutions’ actions. To correct those imbalances, both parties need to assume an active role. For consumers it entails reflecting about the impacts of their daily actions. Such as: does taking shorter showers help? The “Forget Shorter Showers”argument claims that such a measure is pointless. Personal change does not equal political change. By taking shorter showers, we aren’t going to bring down the modern industrial system, which is the primary cause behind freshwater wastage. However, that stance is a slippery slope: Too often people use it as an excuse for their inaction. Ideally, if we all mend our consumption habits, we can effect real change. The effort thus has to be to move towards that ideal.
Yet, the water we save does not go to the poor somebody who does not have water. This is because, simply put, there aren’t pipes to his or her tap. Many countries do not have a water distribution system, where water can be redirected quickly and efficiently to needy regions. Institutions partially recognize this problem. For example, the Indian supreme court temporarily rationed a part of the water endowment from one state to another. The decision was met with riots in Bangalore city, where people set fire to government property. These fires took many thousands of liters to douse. There is also a logistical part to the problem that often isn’t addressed: It’s a painfully common story in many developing drought-struck areas that people have to walk many miles to the nearest well, or that water has to be transported by railway or road. The mere construction of a better distribution system should solve these issues; yet no one bothers to look at the low-hanging fruit.
Water and drought are everywhere in our lives and shape the prices we pay and the decisions we make. Taking three-to-five-minute showers isn’t going to help somebody’s life, but it means that we make a conscious choice to recognize a flaw in the system. If enough people make that choice, there is a chance that we might change the system altogether. That change also starts with asking the simpler questions to our institutions and acting on them: Why not provide bigger plates and go completely trayless? Why not provide independent flow control to showers so that less water goes down the drain? Why doesn’t Quabbin supply water to the towns immediately around it?
Droughts are the elephants in our civilizational rooms. It is high time we notice them.