Water Consciousness in a Global Crisis

As many listeners and followers of World Ocean Radio and the World Ocean Observatory know, we have long emphasized the coming global water crisis and its relationship to a healthy ocean. And in my new book, THE ONCE AND FUTURE OCEAN: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society, I offer a greater amplification of this synergy and how it might inform a new paradigm for valuation, organization, and behavior in the 21st century.

I am certainly not alone in concern for the issue. Indeed even such an august global body as the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, recognized the water crisis as the most impactful global risk in its 2015 survey of 750 members of the Forum. The situation is no less complicated or critical today, as we rapidly move forward into 2016, with California re-evaluating its water policies and structures as a result of pervasive drought; with Flint, Michigan, confronting the health consequences of a switch to its polluted river as its drinking water source; with communities in the US and Europe rising up to oppose the water pollution outcomes of fracking; with continuing drought and climate impacts affecting the stability of artisanal and industrial farmers; and with the inter-connected and ever-increasing demand for an ever decreasing water supply worldwide, dislocating communities, driving a new and disparate migrations, and creating conflict in many unexpected places between water-haves and water-have-nots.

Circle of Blue, a leading water policy and advocacy organization in the US, writes in its latest news report of this manifestation in Syria and Europe, “…scholars and scientists have determined that climate change was an accomplice in this conflict, worsening the drought that drove 1.5 million from their homes. The damage is now worse. The Syrian conflict has unleashed 4.6 million refugees, with the burden mainly falling on Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and other countries in the Middle East that are struggling to provide food and water for their own people, let alone a mass of refugees in the desert. Za’afari, the largest refugee camp, in Jordan, hosts more than 80,000 people. With a waste treatment plant, schools, and hospitals, it is fast becoming a city.”

So the lack of water, or the availability of water, is fast becoming a key determinant in the reality of a new city and in the planning elsewhere for changing demographics, changing economic conditions, changing demands on national and local tax base and budgets, and changing production technologies and prices. We speak now not so much of “oil rich nations,” but of “water rich nations” where this migration will perforce seek to settle and to integrate into existing patterns of governance, social behavior, and cultural traditions. Will this global shift be welcomed or resisted? Will the leaders of such places, those left, or those newly come to, be able to manage the consequences of what appears to be a major global adjustment?

A traditional response has been expressed in Africa for example, where water shortages have long characterized the plight of remote villagers reliant on wells, local or sometimes a long walk away, inadequate to either the needs of garden irrigation, herd animals, or the personal needs for drinking water and hygiene. Two organizations, Water for Good and Charity Water among many other well-intended non-governmental organizations, have dedicated their time, energy, and funds raised to small but necessary improvement to wells, pumps, filters, and other affordable, practical solutions to a critical local need. This effort, however successful, is surely not enough.

It may seem a long way by any scale from an African village or a Jordanian refugee camp to the ocean. The distance can be measured geographically of course, but it can also be measured economically and socially by separation between our understanding of the problem and its solution. To fill this gap we will need a revolutionary re-thinking of what we value most. Will it remain oil, the commodity that has shaped our world for the better and the worse, or will it be water, the one thing we all need in equal amounts — rich and poor, north and south, of every cultural persuasion — to survive.

I submit that the ocean will be the place we turn as the reservoir and distributor of the movement of water — from the volume of the 70% covering of the earth, into the atmosphere, into the watersheds, and back again, in a sustaining hydraulic cycle and circle of conveyance of what we need now most to live. We will go there for desalinated water to drink, but also for food, energy, medicines, and security. We have much of the technology to make such a paradigm shift today, the means to achieve specific ends, but we have not yet the social realization and political will to make the necessary change. Oil and water do not mix, and there is now no choice but to abandon one for the other. I am optimistic that we will choose water.


“Water Consciousness in a Global Crisis” was originally broadcast as a 5-minute audio feature on World Ocean Radio that can be heard here. Peter Neill is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean. Online at worldoceanobservatory.org. Peter Neill is author of “The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society” available now.

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