Having gone to graduate school in Boston, and only recently moved to DC, I have a number of friends who have been pumping out tweets, Facebook updates, and other alerts about the current water crisis in Boston. On May 1st, a massive water main break outside the city and the possibility of contamination of the local water supply prompted a boil water order for nearly 2 million people in Boston and the surrounding area. The “catastrophic” leak was originally dumping approximately 8 million gallons of water per hour into the Charles River, police officers with bullhorns went through neighborhoods to alert citizens not to drink their tap water, and those in affected areas were asked to discontinue all non-essential activities involving water (car washing, grass-watering, etc.). The universities in the area created their own plans for how to ensure students’ needs were met, primarily through massive allocations of bottled water, and reminded students in dorm rooms that hot plates and microwaves were not safe methods for boiling water for a full minute.
While I’m empathetic to the frustrations of the Massachusetts residents temporarily inconvenienced by the shut down of this public service which they pay for, I think this would be an even better moment to take a step back and reflect on just how fortunate we are to have a steady flow of water coming out of our taps each time we turn on the faucet: and not just any water, but clean, potable water we can use without fear of illness. Globally, one in six people (or 1.1 billion, according to the UN) don’t have access to clean, safe drinking water according to the WHO/UNICEF, and those without access live primarily in developing nations that do not have a safe, filtered water supply. A child born in the developed world consumes 30 to 50 times more water than one born in the developing world, according to the UN World Water Assessment Program. And most of us here in the States, on the other hand, turn up our noses at drinking tap water (often saying, “I don’t like the taste”), and buy expensive bottled water that requires even more water to produce, transport, and distribute. Reflecting on that makes me feel a bit greedy, because while I’m happy with a glass of tap water with lemon, I’m just as guilty as most of my neighbors in dropping $1.50 for a bottle of water at a grocery or gas station.
I can remember sitting in front of a massive crowd at a day-long World Environmental Day presentation in Kimana, Kenya, with a Nalgene filled with filtered water in my backpack that I was lucky to have thanks to a UV light filtration system at our bush camp, and refusing to take a sip despite the glaring heat because I felt it would disrespect the crowd in front of me who were living through a massive drought. These individuals would haul filthy jerry cans of water from turbid streams that trickled through water furrows on select days of the week, and were often otherwise forced to collect water from stagnant pools, thanks to the drought and the diversion of part of the river (a primary water source for much of the community) to water fields of flowers (many of which would eventually find their way to vases inside European and US households) near Nairobi. As the glacier on the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro melts away, an additional primary water source is being quickly depleted, leaving the people of the area with the stark reality that yet another source might run dry within the next few decades (depending on which climate change analyst you agree with).
So Boston, please boil your water and be safe. But also be thankful that you still have water flowing out of your taps, don’t have to walk 1, 2, or 5 miles to fetch a jug of this wonderful resource, and have the ability to boil the water on your convenient electric or gas stove without having to collect the supplies to build, start, and sustain a fire for the sake of boiling your water before using it. And let’s also be thankful this happened on a weekend sandwiched between the Boston Marathon and the number of university graduations happening soon, because with so many visitors in town staying in hotels, the situation could have been far worse.
(Special thanks to my friend Joe’s brief rant about the Bostonians freaking out over a few days of boiling water, when it’s normally so cheap and accessible for us. Inconvenient, yes, but not the end of the world. The sky hasn’t fallen yet.)