Water and Government

In the United States one of the things we take for granted the most is the easy access to clean water that we have. The vast majority of us live and work in places that we can walk into a room, turn on a tap and have as much clean water flow out of it as we need. And it’s cheap – of all the bills we pay the water bill isn’t usually the one we struggle to cover. The only time we don’t worry about it is when we experience a drought and then it jumps to the top of our list of things to worry about.

Last month I was in Las Vegas for a conference and one of the speakers there was a guy named Doc Hendley. He happens to live in Boone, NC which is just over an hour’s drive from my house and he founded a remarkable organization called Wine to Water. At this particular conference (the National Apartment Association’s annual education conference) he served as the keynote speaker for the awards ceremony, and every year that particular slot is reserved for a speaker with an inspirational story. Well his sure was, and I encourage you to hear it when you can, but what causes me to mention him here is that his organization does.

Wine to Water works overseas in some of the poorest and most dangerous areas of the world in an effort to give communities access to water. The most memorable part of Doc’s presentation, at least to me, was when he talked about shifting from just installing wells in communities and leaving, to teaching them how to install and maintain their own wells. He’d seen what happened when other agencies came in, put in a well and just left. Within months or years those wells were not functioning and no one in the community knew how to fix them. The folks at Wine to Water figured out how to build wells using materials that were readily available in the community so that the people who lived there could fix them when something went wrong. In other words they taught them how to fish rather than just giving them a one-time gift of a cooler full of fish.

So that’s what his organization is doing in places like the Sudan, but what happens here in the US when an area experiences an epic drought, private wells throughout a community go dry, and the folks who live there can’t afford to have new ones dug, and if they can afford it there’s a two year waiting list? Well, of course another charitable group pops up to help meet their needs (see the video below) but their efforts are definitely a band aid approach.

If one guy from NC can figure out how to help people half way around the world help themselves you would hope that we could figure out a way to help a bunch of Californians help themselves. If you watch the video you’ll hear the editor of the local paper say it’s a money issue – that it will take $30 million to get the residents without access to the city’s water system hooked up – and if that’s the case then it’s just a matter of making it a priority for the government at some level. Sounds simple, but we all know it’s not.

Here in Lewisville, NC many of us are hooked up to the city/county water system, but most of us don’t have sewer lines near us so we have private septic systems. Unfortunately much of the land here is high in clay content so it doesn’t perk well, and that means the septic fields in older housing developments are beginning to fail rather regularly. When they do the fix can be anywhere from a couple of thousand dollars up to $15-20,000 and many people on fixed incomes don’t have the money to do it. So they pay someone to come out and pump their tanks weekly – a band aid approach – and hope the health department doesn’t catch on. The town’s leaders are well aware of the issue, but running sewer lines is very expensive and they aren’t going to do it until they absolutely have to. Basically it comes down to money and priorities, and until either the right opportunity comes along to run new sewer lines (for instance the county building a new school which would require new lines run into that area) or it turns into a health crisis, there just won’t be enough political momentum to get it done.

That’s what’s going on in East Porterville, CA. Quite frankly those 900 households with dried up wells are caught in the middle of a much bigger problem. California’s drought is massive and is revealing long-term issues for the state that go well beyond drinking water for this one community, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering and that also doesn’t mean a solution shouldn’t be provided. That’s what good government is about and it will be interesting to see how this develops because we’re almost certain to see more situations like this in the future.

So back to the concept of teaching a community to fish. Here in the US we have something that many of the communities that Wine to Water serves do not: a functioning, stable government. That’s true at the local level, the state level and the national level. Yeah we all gripe about our government and joke about the ineptitude of our not-so-beloved bureaucrats and politicians, but in the grand scheme of things we have it great compared to the rest of the world. So maybe in this country, with our wealth and stability, the fishing is about how to effectively work with government to make sure that residents’ basic needs are met. Everyone I know, whether they’re staunch conservatives or liberals, do agree that government is necessary. They may not agree on how much government is necessary, but they do think we need it for the health and well being of our citizens. It would be hard to argue that access to clean drinking water is not part of the basic package that government should deliver.

Don’t agree with me on that last sentence? Well, think about it the next time you turn on the tap that’s likely less than 30 feet from where you sit reading this.

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