We Need To Talk about Water
The rain that has fallen over Austria in the last 24 hours feel like a blessed relief.
For weeks it has been bone dry in Austria’s forests and, although it’s early Spring, the first forest fires have broken out. When I have ridden my mountainbike I’ve come home cloaked in a film of dust.
It’s dusty too in the agricultural fields. Farmers are scratching their heads in desperation. Lake Neusiedl is at its lowest level in decades. And in southern Styria people are being called on to reduce their water consumption.
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Climate change has brought the water crisis even to Austria; the Land der Berge, Land am Strome. Across the country rainfall has been at a fraction of historical averages this year. It’s a reality check for a green country that has rarely had to think of saving water.
Given that two out of three people on this planet suffer from water shortages and scientists warn that the problem will get ever worse, it is really high time we talked seriously about water.
The current dry spell in Austria is painful and costly and fills me with anxiety, but we can’t compare these worries with the situation in the global south. Even if our agricultural fields are parched, we can still simply turn on a tap and enjoy access to clean, healthy water.
I learned yesterday that the water that my child plays with at the local playground, has to be, by law, of drinking quality. This seems an obscene luxury when many children his age are joining their mothers on long and time-consuming hikes to carry jerry-cans of water back from bore-holes.
The water charity Viva Con Agua says that four billion people face water shortages. And the climate crisis is making things worse in two ways:
As the world gets warmer, more water is evaporated. This exacerbates droughts in some areas, whisking the last moisture away from thirsty crops. “We see that areas of the world that had sufficient water supply are getting more and more under water stress,” says Viva Con Agua’s s Austrian director Birgit Straka. “People who had water the whole year round maybe only have water for a couple of months or insufficient water now. Or sometimes no water at all.”
But, of course, what goes up must come down. This enhanced level of water in the atmosphere means where rain storms come they are more extreme.
Dry areas are getting dryer and wet areas are getting wetter. The extreme weather events such as cyclones further imperil water security. “The flood waters overwhelm latrines and sewage systems and so the flood waters pollute bore-holes with faecal bacteria,” points out Straka.
Water Is A Human Right
Viva Con Agua has a simple slogan: “Water is a human right”. But like so many human rights these days, that principle is increasingly under threat.
The charity, which was originally founded in Hamburg by engaged football fans from St Pauli, works primarily in the Global South promoting access to clean drinking water, sanitation and hygiene.
Viva Con Agua
Its work here in Europe is mostly about raising awareness of water problems faced by the world’s poorest people and how our habits in the West are exacerbating a difficult situation. And that’s why, during the dry Austrian spring, they hosted a series of mini concerts from Austrian bands in the gondolas of the Viennese Big Wheel – the Riesenrad.
The Water Cycle?
No-one there could quite explain the link to water. Before arriving, I had dreamed up metaphors involving the water cycle, but it seems the location was just chosen because it was available and pleasant. This is my favourite philosophy: “Why not?”
One of the artists performing was pauT who was struggling to get his head around the new reality of a dry and dusty Austria. pauT grew up in Baden, a town famous for its water, and he says because water had until now always seemed so plentiful in Austria he’s never given the water crisis much thought:
“When we were growing up, water seemed the most common thing,” he told me as he warmed up for his mini concert. “It’s probably the last thing you think to care about, but we all should.”
So, although his participation was aimed at creating awareness among others, he admitted he was also using his concert and time spent with the Viva Con Agua team “to create a little bit more awareness for myself.”
What Should We Be Talking About?
It’s not just pauT, or indeed me, who has neglected the water issue. A WaterAid analysis is in 2020 found that water issues received less than 3% of climate funding worldwide – water activists say we simply don’t think about the issue enough and we don’t talk about it enough. But what should we be talking about?
Well, firstly we can solve nothing until we reduce our carbon emissions. I realize this simple truth is the core message of every single FM4 Klimanews Weekly, but since we are currently increasing subsidies of fossil fuels, I’m not ashamed to repeat it or shout it from the rooftops. There will be more droughts and more deadly floods as long as we keep protecting diesel consumption. Sorry, it is true, even if it is uncomfortable.
But in the meantime we could mitigate the impact of the climate crisis by making conscious food choices; because the things we eat can impact water accessibility. Austrian artist Yasmo highlights avocados, which are often marketed as superfoods although their environmental impact in the land where they are grown is often far from super.
We really shouldn’t be buying avocados grown in areas where local people suffer from water shortages. You might want to think about almond milk too.
The clothes we wear also have an impact. It’s estimated that the fashion industry currently uses around 93 billion cubic metres of water per year, which is four percent of all freshwater extraction globally.
Because for generations we have been spoiled by our easy access to water, it is somehow difficult for us to image what it is like to live in an area where you can’t just turn on the tap and get clean, safe water. But Rahel, one artist performing at the Viva Con Agua event, says one terrifying misadventure gave her a glimpse into the reality of life for billions of people on our shared planet:
“I went to Sahara with a group of people,” she told me, “and we got into this situation where we had half a bottle of water left for all of us. And it was the first time that I experienced such a situation. Everything went very well. So still, yeah, still, I cannot imagine what it is like to not have any water at all.”
The World Has To Rise To This Challenge
At COP26 the head of WaterAid had some direct and strong words about our failure to address the water crisis: "It’s calamitous. It is already killing people. It’s unthinkable not to do something about this. The world has to rise to this challenge.”
Publiziert am 01.04.2022