Water: When Nightmares Come True

Retreating Lake Naivasha in May

I always thought it was a little overly dramatic when people used to say, with that gleam of fire in their eyes and intense certainty in their voices, “The next world war will be fought over water.” I didn’t notice their resigned sadness after saying that and seeing the response of the audience, of my response.

Water wars, we imagined, were decades away. Climate refugees fleeing drought and devastation would be seen in generations, not in ours. People would recognize when resources were becoming so scarce and develop cooperative strategies for conservation long before it came to the point of fighting over them. Right?

The sad climate “joke” five years ago was that we’d need to bring melting icebergs to sub-Saharan Africa to support life. But in Kenya today, aid workers are already flying water in from other countries. Today, thousands of men and women are already dying from lack of the most basic human need — water.

From NY Times: An elderly woman is given water in the Turkana region of Kenya. Many of the elderly are too weak and sick to feed themselves or drink

Today, when I repeat the phrase – “Wars will be fought over water” – with the same confidence and intensity, the same fire, and the same resigned sadness, I know that fights over water are not generations – or even years – away. We may not have another world war, but I have no question that we will see more devastation and violence, if we need to see any more than the lives being lost every day in Kenya.

There is no water to drink, let alone have water to wash hands to prevent the spread of diarrheal diseases. There is no water to drink, let alone have water to farm. Lakes have been retreating for years as water is used for farming, for geothermal energy, and for survival, and the lakes’ disappearances are threatening not only water animals like flamingos and hippos, but all of the biodiversity for which Kenya is famous.

NYT: "'We eat once a day, said Mrs. Bai, 65, explaining how she and her family had survived the lack of rain."

At the same time, in India, thousands of farmers commit suicide annually due to desperation caused by cycles of debt, but also cycles of increasing drought and irregular rain. Farmers who would rather die than face the shame and sadness of watching their families die of starvation, have killed not only themselves but their families as well. This year has been one of India’s worst monsoons in recent history, with too little rains coming too late, and often all at once.

On the brink of death, is there a question of anything but desperation?

Read more on what we can expect – and what we can do.

In India and Kenya, failing to provide for your family is shameful, but killing others would mean the death of your family as well. This is the explanation I’ve found for why many are killing themselves, but when driven to such sadness, death by dehyrdation, I have no question that in other cultures or in similar situations, many would be driven to kill others, to use the last of their strength to attempt to provide water for their families.

Many are blaming corruption in Kenya for not responding more quickly to the needs of the Kenyan people, for selling off reserves of grain that *had* been saved for times of intense drought. Others blame developed countries for not sending more aid money. Seeing failures on all sides, few are asking the hard question — how will we respond when it is not hundreds of thousands but hundreds of millions that are suffering in the same situation?

When I used to think of climate refugees, I thought of residents of low-lying coasts or small island nations as floods increase and sea levels rise. It is time to think of the millions who will move due to water in the other extreme – those who will not have water to survive AND those who will be caught in the crossfire of water-based conflict.

My family and friends, who have seen me passionate about many things, have never seen me this angry or this deeply sad. I still have hope for the Maldives and other islands, but I’m losing my hope for survival of our world’s desert peoples. Things are becoming so bad so quickly that I’m not sure that there is time. And, I don’t know *what* the solution is. Of course, more water brought by more aid money and more food equitably distributed by the government would help in Kenya. Can this happen fast enough to save lives now?

In the long term, friends ask about technology transfer? More efficient use of water? Drip irrigation and drought resistant crops? Rainwater harvesting? Low-flush toilets sending sewage to wastewater treatment plants like those in Singapore whose effluent you can drink? Desalination plants? In internal Kenya, there is no rain to harvest, no water to use more efficiently, virtually no sewage systems to treat to a point of potability. In the long term, we’ll need all of these things — all over the world.

The water crisis makes me feel so desperate because I’m not sure what I can do here to help. I find myself angry when seeing a few sips of water left in a glass, furious as the quantities of potable water flushed down the drains in New England, livid at the lawns in Los Angeles. There are so many ways Americans (among others) waste water, and so much that could be improved if things change here. But if we save this water, it still won’t save lives in Kenya orĀ  in India.

What’s to do? We must demand from our Northern political leaders stronger action – commitment to aid in drought areas NOW, commitment to climate mitigation and energy policy in US and Europe, and massive contributions to Disaster Risk Reduction and adaptation funds to prevent these catastrophes. We must demand global cooperation in the lead up to Copenhagen and global commitment to 350 ppm by organizing in communities around the world on October 24. And we must remember what is at stake.


5 Responses to “Water: When Nightmares Come True”

  1. 1 Daniel Oct 4th, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    Hi Caroline,

    not sure what to say here. I increasingly feel that a lot of people will face dire consequences for the inaction of the industrialized countries in the past decade. It leaves me speachless.


  2. 2 Matt Dernoga Oct 4th, 2009 at 11:42 pm

    Great piece

  3. 3 ghettoblackify Oct 5th, 2009 at 12:58 am

    Nice article.. I enjoyed it !

  4. 4 AnnaK Oct 5th, 2009 at 4:11 am

    And to top off the climate impacts on Kenya’s water, there is this shit, to provide us in Europe with pretty cut-flowers: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2006/oct/21/kenya.world


    God bless neo-liberalism…

  5. 5 Josh Lynch Oct 5th, 2009 at 2:51 pm

    Hearing you tell this story in your recent visit back to the U.S. really hit home for me, Caroline. We live in a country with so much wealth, education, and innovation. So many resources and so many hard-working people who care about each other when it really matters. Compassion is contagious. Thank you for telling this story and continuing to work for a better tomorrow for so many in the face of this nightmare scenario.

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About Caroline

Caroline Howe explores how to get more people excited about sustainability, through education, new technology, financial tools, and community engagement. She's particularly passionate about engaging young people in developing community based solutions to environmental challenges. This has taken her to five continents, working with her start-up, Loop Solutions, as well as with NGOs, youth groups, companies, UN agencies, and a ton of fantastic youth leaders.

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