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Ukumbwa Sauti ~ Water: On the Mind and In the Media

I click on my Mac widgets program and see all at once that the Alewife Brook gage depth is about 2.2 feet (United States Geological Survey), high tide in Boston was over 10 feet (iTide) and the global carbon footprint was racing unintelligibly past 84,676,368,629 tons ( as another widget displayed a peaceful tropical seashore sunset, water lapping against a welcoming beach as palm trees waved in the balmy breeze, complete with digital wave sounds and an option for accompanying music.  Even from my medium-tech net portal, I can keep track of the ebb and flow of this most important element….some call it a natural resource, smacking of use, rather than coexistence or respect or love, adoration, familial engagement.  Some call it something deeper than a mere necessity, something that pulls us to the core of our very soul, a reflection of our very soul, reflective of our own essence, unable to be quantified in or qualified by feet or fathoms or fanciful digital imagery.

Franklin Pierce University, with the leadership of the New England Center for Civic Life, is embarking on a reflective and somewhat revolutionary project, “Art for Water”, under the creative guidance of artist Christine Destrempes.  With collaborative, interdisciplinary work proposed, film screenings, open discussions and art creation in the plans, a major shift in our understanding of our relationship to this element is possible and required if we are to conduct ourselves as conscious members of, not only a world community, but of nature itself.

Water at beach, Gloucester, MA Water at beach, Gloucester, MA 

Water is an assumption in popular modern life.  It pours endlessly from our mundane and grandiose fixtures, a fantasy in much of the indigenous world, the mother of the thankless, relatively young world of modernism.  A close friend related a story of a woman from India who cried when she saw a water-fight on a college campus, knowing the fundamental struggle for water’s life-giving power in her own country.  How often do we turn on the water in our opulent sinks and then walk away, even for a moment?  When has our heart sunk because we spilled potable water on the ground?  There is always more water readily available to us at every turn, in every domicile, every store, bodega and gas station.

The documentary “Planet Earth”, in it’s “Fresh Water” episode, states that just 3% of all water on the earth is fresh water – and that only 1% is drinkable.  That’s food and water for thought.

At the core of Destrempes’ “Art for Water” project (picture on eRaven) is the undeniable case that we are in danger of destroying our water “resources” (within the human perspective) to a point in which we will be thrust into the growing reality of water wars, a concept brought to light in the world of international and even inter-state politics in this country. One need only look at the relationship of Colorado and California and their water battles over the Colorado River’s dwindling volume to see the depths of this conflict on the domestic level.  Did you know that the Colorado River ceases to reach the Gulf of Mexico in it’s disempowered amble from the north?  The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom has also brought clarity to the deeper dynamics of Middle East war and politics, defining the battle for water resources in concert with that for oil in the region.  Many reports have pointed to water being central to the political dynamics of Sudan, in addition to Iraq.

Water is clearly a necessity in the minds of the learned or the ignorant, but we are failing to realize the simple consequences of our lifestyles, politics and spiritual disconnection as related to this substance.  Suburban sprawl and it’s insane deification of the lawn has been identified as a major component in the decline of the availability and quality of water in the United States of America and other so-called developed countries (I’m not so sure what kind of development “they” mean!).  Modern agricultural practice has begun to deplete the Oglala aquifer, the principal supplier of water to the “breadbasket of America”.  Business, manufacturing and domestic effluent are major sources of water pollution, with gains and losses seen in current changing practices around conservation and environmental protection.

Let’s look at a few more of our behaviors and social practices with and around water…and I bring these up for purpose of discussion and academic challenge, so bear with me.

We are water-poopers.  Yes, I said it.  Why is it that in a so-called “developed”, modern world that is able to send people, satellites, TV images of Paris Hilton and chimps into space we think it‘s a good thing to regularly, gleefully relieve the contents of our bowels into the one natural element that is required to be just about 100% free of contaminants before we take it into our bodies?  In our grand and glorious technological megalomania, we have institutionalized the practice of crapping in the very substance that we cannot live without.  Interesting….interesting, I say.  In my work as a water quality monitor with the Mystic River Watershed Association, it was a regular practice to take water samples to assist the Environmental Protection Agency in assessing the levels of fecal coliform and solids levels in the water reserves that feed our drinking water.  When they say fecal, they mean poop.  When they say solids, they also mean poop, amongst other things.  We are water-poopers.  We poop into the water we drink.  Even a cursory, but courageous reading of  “The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure” by Joseph Jenkins will enlighten us to the madness represented in the practice of one of our most hallowed United States of American institutions – the movement of bowel and bladder on and in our porcelain thrones.  Is this an homage to our innate regal nature…at least with respect to our beloved water resources.  Jenkins suggests that the best place for those ‘deposits’ is the earth itself.  Properly composted, human manure becomes a benefit to the environment and is key to human-ecological balance.  In addition, coal mining companies regularly use/lose thousands upon thousands of gallons to slough coal across the desert (no less!) so that we can burn it factories and power stations….that’s a great use of water, why NOT let’s take regular poops in it, too?

As you can see, academic refinery has given way to the required emotional rectitude of this watery exhortation.  I thought it necessary to get your attention.

We bottle water to bring potable water into our homes and cars and gym bags and sports events.  We bottle water in plastics that leech dangerous gasses and chemicals, using processes that use more water to clean out the bottles than they hold (“Say No to Bottled Water” campaign of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom), sucking precious water from the earth at the cost of the permit to pump rather than the actual cost – inestimable! – of water so that we can conveniently have water at our side, then conveniently dump the plastic bottles into garbage can, ocean, river and landfill.  We know that it is a tremendously low number of the billions of plastic bottles of water (or anything else) that actually get recycled, right?  But don’t just believe me.  Sit in front of the television or listen to your satellite radio and wait for the data on our most precious water resources to come streaming (pun intended) into your consciousness.  After all, I teach media studies, I had to go there.  You might dehydrate before the popular culture media sources share any of this important information with us on this contentious practice of commodifying life-giving substances.  Our best bet is to wait for the Brita and Pur water filter commercials that ask us gently to filter our tap water and save ourselves the scourge of wasteful and toxic practices of plastic bottle usage, a wise practice also being supported, of course, by the local municipal water authority in the Boston area.  The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s website gives us an ocean full of data and content to absorb in this regard.

Assortment of ways to hold and relate to water...the lablels are instructive. Assortment of ways to hold and relate to water…the lablels are instructive. 

Suffice to say, on this issue of bottled water, that there are issues that belie our insistence of understanding our fundamental dependence upon clean, drinkable water.  Bottling water damages water resources, not only in the process of pumping and transport, but in the disposal of the noxious receptacles that have become a center-piece in modern USAmerican life and beyond.  Our behaviors are in conflict with our human needs.  How thoroughly modern is that, Millie?  A walk around any of our university buildings will reveal Aquafina vending machines. Since when did Pepsi know what to do with water?  It makes cents to bottle water, but it does not make sense to bottle water.  Pepsi and Coca-Cola have both been embroiled in battles with governments and communities, activist organizations and indigenous villages around their thirst for potable water to turn into soft drinks.  I remember reading a tragic (to me) story of Coke’s search for potable water sources for sodie pop production in Africa.  Now there’s a continent with plenty of clean, available water over-running its cups with such surplus that corporations like Coca-Cola and Pepsi would love to tap.  I’m being drily sarcastic – for the record.  Please check, again bravely, into the work of the Barka Foundation to get some deeper clarity on that.  Their “Walk for Water” is a powerful statement of the need for us to raise our awareness about world water issues and how our behaviors have impact.

Privatization of water management in an age of capitalist globalization brings the issue of water to a boiling point.  It was in our very recent past that the people of Bolivia ran Bechtel out of their country, torches and pitchforks raised, in a successful attempt to safeguard their spiritual, national and natural heritage.  The collusion of bureaucratic government and private corporation around the issue of water is bringing to light the deep rifts of understanding and practice around the distribution of water in the world.  Organizations like the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom have been doing great work on the ground and in the media around clarifying what’s at stake and how government policy and corporate practice impact people’s lives.  A look into their “Save the Water” campaign reveals a depth of engagement in this matter that is not seen in our more readily apparent media sources.  Related to the bottling issue, this oversteps the pedestrian connection to drinking water as the international World Water Council, a consortium of private water management corporations and organization, that promotes the World Water Forum that has been held in Istanbul, Mexico, Kyoto, the Hague, and Marrakech since 1997 advances its promotional campaign.  Their corporate puffery touts “a global water movement for a water secure world”.  Then why are indigenous and non-governmental organizations and academic leaders the world over decrying their practices and policies?  Their website is a gorgeous display of seemingly sensible rhetoric about water and its conservation and management, giving lip-service to Mother Nature herself with statements such as:

“In addition, nature plays a role of regulation and purification of water resources, thus contributing to better water supply and quality”     (

As if nature itself is OUR subordinate servant.  As nature IS our mother, the WWC is subverting our most sacred human traditional knowings of the primacy of nature in the sustenance of the health and sanctity of nature itself, in addition to our own collective human life.  Corporate practice has not revealed technological or conceptual mastery enough to improve upon the eternal abilities of nature to keep itself in balance.  Issues of male-dominated, capitalist ideology in contrast to and conflict with humanist, feminist/eco-feminist and socialist/populist/ communalist discourse are raised here.  The WWC suggests that it has nearly all the answers in sustaining a “water secure” world. The Tlatokan Atlahuak Declaration made at the Indigenous Peoples Parallel Forum of the 4th World Water Forum in Mexico City, Mexico in March, 2006 disagreed firmly and stated:

“We, representatives of Indigenous Peoples and organizations of Mexico, the Americas and other continents of the world participating in the Indigenous Forum parallel to the 4th World Water Forum, declare our solidarity with the Indigenous Peoples of Mexico and their struggle for their ancestral territories and natural resources of which water is aprimordial element. For all Indigenous Peoples of the world, water is the source of material, cultural and spiritual life.”

They went on to affirm their responsibility as indigenous people to safeguard and protect their spiritual and communal birthright, their humble stewardship of the gift of nature and water and earth that they live in such close familial communion with.  I “bullet”, or better yet, ‘water drop’ excerpts of their declaration as their viewpoint is instructive and due to a knowing that my prosaic ramblings may do an injustice to their clarity:

“We reaffirm the same Declaration to honor and respect water as a sacred being that sustains all life. Our traditional knowledge, laws and forms of life teach us to be responsible and caring for this sacred gift that connects all life.”

“We reaffirm that the relationship we have with our lands, territories and water constitute the physical, cultural and spiritual basis of our existence. The relationship with our Mother Earth obligates us to conserve our fresh water and seas for the survival of present
and future generations.”

“Mexico and countries that are accomplices of the multinational corporations, violate with impunity the human rights and fundamental freedoms that they themselves have consecrated in the Covenants, Conventions and Declarations of the United Nations and the Organization of American States.”

“Our lands, territories and natural resources, particularly our water (rivers, springs, wells, lakes, groundwater) continue to be stolen or ruined with extreme pollution. The water multinationals, with the support of the international finance agencies like the World Bank
and the Interamerican Development Bank are accomplices in the privatization of our territories and our water. This creates a scarcity of water raising its economic value and furthering the view of water as an object of commerce.”

“We reject the neoliberal model of life that views water as merchandise, not as a public good, or a fundamental human right. Agencies such as the World Trade Organization promote privatization projects of our vital liquid.”

“We denounce the structure of the World Water Forum for being financially prohibitive, which excludes the very Indigenous Peoples who are impacted. We denounce the format of the World Water Forum for denying the legitimacy of the indigenous world and spiritual vision of the sacredness of water.”


Indigenous people are in current battle with corporate, capitalist structures of globalization that seek to privatize and commodify water at its source, in the womb of Mother Earth, if you will.  The divine feminine screams a war cry that shakes the very foundation of modern thought, reverberating through our human core, the heart of us, if we are open and receptive enough to feel it.  Caught at the wrong end of modern developmental practice (IS there a good end?) and policy, the indigenous people of the world are standing strong in the face of the calamity of global warming, being the first groupings of humans on the earth to feel its effects, a reality supported by United Nations reports, to defend OUR right as humans to an organic, healthy  relationship with water.

In an attempt to come full circle in my blogospheric rantings, the progenitors of water commodification and privatization are trying to turn the whole world into water-poopers.  Toilets sold equal profits gained.  Water privately piped means bottom-lines strengthened. Consider for a moment what that means…let alone the 3-day meditation that is due the above declaration.  Modern corporate ideology suggests that it is actually a benefit to the world that we continue to foul our waters through the daily usage of the toilet. The documentary “Oil on Ice” reported that one of the benefits of oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) would be indoor toilets for the indigenous people.  Scary ideas when we really sit down (pun again intended) and think about the repercussions of our cultural practices.

Furthermore, touching upon the indigenous cultural embrace of water, the Dagara of Burkina Faso and Ghana hold water to be one of the five spiritual elements of its cosmology.  Called Kuon by the Dagara, water represents and embodies peace, reconciliation, unity, community, balance and observant reflection, amongst other attributes.  Even a quick consideration of current socio-political reality reveals that water’s spiritual qualities are needed desperately.  The Dagara contend that water, as all in nature, must be respected and held in balance in our understanding of it’s importance to life itself and to the spiritual balance of the universe.  Pollution of water is not only a physical affront and a socio-political pathology, but a spiritual transgression that has repercussions far beyond our intellectual grasp.  To the Dagara, it is the lessons and qualities of water that are needed most urgently in the fire-dominant culture of modernity, as stated by Malidoma Some’ in his book, “Healing Wisdom of Africa” (1999).

The powerful regenerative and redemptive powers of water are being curtailed by the constant physical mistreatment and spiritual neglect of this most fundamental element of our life and times.  Our social and private cultural behavior is damaging not only our spiritual and emotional health, but our prospects for life itself.  Turning on a faucet or paying for a bottle of water to slake thirst are not inert activities.  The ripples of our actions extend to the very depths of the oceans and across every lake, river and stream, through the very cycle of water and of life itself, to the physical and spiritual core of our humanity.

Our participation in the academic endeavor of enlightenment, our understanding of the relationship of the individual to the community of human and nature behooves us to reconsider, to meditate, to pray, to think, to discuss, to engage, to act.  The media component in this discussion is as evident as the integrative presence of the very waterways that course through the earth body like veins in our own.  We are called as an academic community, as world citizens to reassess our relationship to water, to question the absence of information and engagement of substantive discourse and education in mainstream media, to challenge the commodification of a human right, to challenge the privatization of the social commons, to embolden and validate the wisdom of the indigenous voice, the indigenous soul that has carried heart of humanity in its hands at risk of its own demise now in this modern construct, to live in such a way that will reveal the true genius that humankind has the potential to bring to bear, instead of living in the exigencies of our own ignorance and unwillingness to bravely, boldly, courageously face the facts of life.  We are called, required by our humanity, by our humble childhood in the womb of mother nature, still, to do better on the behalf of water.  As students-cum-communicators, as scientists, as producers, business people, sociologists, marketers, educators, we must identify new ways of living and working as if we are conscious of human life and need, not merely the force of the market.

As a start, support the work of the New England Center for Civic Life and it’s work around these very key issues of water, life and culture.  Inquire into what “Art for Water” is really about.  Download that PDF file linked on Franklin Pierce University’s eRaven page.  Go to the discussions or start a few of your own.  See the movies or produce your own.  But do something about water.

We won’t live without it.

Beach and persistent algae bloom, Lynn Beach, Lynn, MA
Beach and persistent algae bloom, Lynn Beach, Lynn, MA

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