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No. 2271:
The Inequity of Water

by Rob Zaretsky

Today, our guest, historian Rob Zaretsky, hopes to buy a cup of water. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In Frank Herbert's book Dune, there's an unforgettable moment when one of the desert planet's inhabitants spits in front of a visitor. This shocking gesture's meaning is turned upside down into a gesture of respect on water-parched Dune. Spitting means more than a handshake or hug ever could in our own world.

draining waterIn Houston, we easily overlook the relationship between water and life -- apart from those moments when its overabundance threatens us. Yet this is not the case for so much of the world. The global distribution of water resources is unequal. New Yorker writer Michael Specter weighs water inequities. For example, Canada has more water than China, but there are forty times more Chinese than Canadians. India staggers under 20 percent of the global population, yet taps into less than four percent of the world's water resources. 

Something has to give. In Beijing, it is the foundations that are giving way. Countless ground wells are emptying the aquifers, turning the city into a massive elevator equipped only with a down button: Beijing's water table has sunk 200 feet over the last 20 years. In India, democratic institutions sag under the demands for water between rural and urban residents, poor and rich. The Minister of Water Resources refers to himself as the Minister of Water Conflicts. The poor of New Delhi scrape by with fewer than 25 gallons a day -- equal to the three sloshing buckets they carry from water tankers to their homes. At the same time, domestic use in America is over a hundred gallons of water daily. And the total water chargeable to us is more like 1200 gallons a day.

flowing waterIs western greed the culprit? Consider the question the next time you order a hamburger. Specter claims that it took thirteen hundred gallons of water to make it. Yet, paradoxically, the same technology responsible for our fast-food addiction has also made us into recovering water addicts. Thanks to market forces and federal conservation laws, we use less water per capita than we did in 1975. The proof is in the plumbing: ten years ago, flushing one's toilet sent seven gallons of water cascading into the sewer, four times more than the current designs. 

The same trend exists in other mature economies. Clearly, as technologies ripen and industries develop, nations pay less attention to the health of their GDP and more to the health of their citizens. We do not need a technological silver bullet to solve the problem, for the solutions already exist, from water drip irrigation to repairing old and decrepit water lines.

But it's also a philosophical problem. Whether in India or Indiana, we see water as a resource unlike any other: abundant and free. Governments thus hesitate to make people pay for water -- hence our inadequate and decaying infrastructures. As one Indian expert sighed, "If water costs nothing it is worth nothing." Like the residents of Frank Herbert's Dune, we too may end up spitting, but only at ourselves. 

I'm Rob Zaretsky, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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M. Specter, The Last Drop. The New Yorker Magazine, October 23, 2006.

Robert Zaretsky is professor of French history in the University of Houston Honors College, and the Department of Modern and Classical Languages. (He is the author of Nîmes at War: Religion, Politics and Public Opinion in the Department of the Gard, 1938-1944. (Penn State 1995), Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue. ( Nebraska 2004), co-editor of France at War: Vichy and the Historians. (Berg 2001), translator of Tzevtan Todorov's Voices From the Gulag. (Penn State 2000) and Frail Happiness: An Essay on Rousseau. (Penn State 2001). With John Scott, he is co-author of So Great a Noise: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume and the Limits of Human Understanding. To be published by Yale University Press in 2007.

flowing fountain

(All photos by JHL)