The sacred folklores of the Yoruba tradition tell the story of the time water left Earth. In the narrative, several deities from the heavenly realm come to Earth to go about the process of creation. Among these deities is Oshun, the Orisha (deities who represent the forces of nature) associated with love, fertility, compassion and sweet water. At some point, one of the deities comments that Oshun doesn’t really need to be there. Oshun, upon being insulted, decides to leave Earth, taking all the world’s freshwater with her. Needless to say, the others are unable to bring forth any life without water. Oshun eventually receives an apology and returns to the earthly realm, restoring the waters with her arrival. There is water once again, and where there is water, life can emerge. She returns with a warning: “Don’t let it happen again.”
Without water, no life is possible. The Indigenous Water Protectors at Standing Rock echoed this sacred understanding, which was foundational to their cosmologies when they rallied around the phrase “Mní Wičóni” — or “water is life.” At the time, members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and allies were attempting to block the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a project they argued would compromise the safety of the water in the Missouri River, which supplies water to 320,000 people. Construction of the pipeline was completed in April 2017 after an executive order from former President Donald Trump.
Indigenous spiritual frameworks and ways of understanding have always revered and protected water as the essential source of all life. Within the frameworks and structures of the prevailing capitalist system, however, water is nothing more than another resource to be extracted for profit. The water we depend on, as with anything else, can be a casualty of the violence and harm perpetuated by this system. A system that will exploit and destroy water will exploit and destroy human life.
Our Current System Threatens Water, Threatens Life
At the end of March, the Senate voted 53-43 to approve a resolution to overturn a rule that would expand federal protections of United States waterways. Meanwhile, Western states battle over quickly diminishing water reserves in the Colorado River as the potential for a water scarcity crisis looms in the region.
Water crisis is increasingly becoming a reality for people across the U.S. We grapple with the threat of waking up and not knowing where the water we depend on may come from, or what it might be contaminated with. And in water crises across time and space, our society’s most vulnerable communities — communities of color, and poor and working-class communities — find themselves at the front lines of water inequity and its disastrous potential.
Last year, the residents of Jackson, Mississippi, spent six weeks without access to water when heavy river flooding strained the city’s already deteriorating water infrastructure. Eight years before that, the world witnessed the people of Flint, Michigan, poisoned when corrosive water coming from the Flint River was left untreated and then contaminated with extraordinarily high levels of lead from the city’s lead pipes. Several municipal officials were aware, yet the people of Flint were not informed of the dangers lurking in their taps. In the resulting catastrophe, tens of thousands of children were exposed to lead poisoning and 12 people died from the third-largest outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in U.S. history. Today, though the water has been proclaimed “safe,” water scarcity and uncertainty are still daily realities for people in Flint.
After the February 3 derailment of a train carrying several hazardous materials (including 115,580 gallons of vinyl chloride) contaminated over 1 million gallons of water in Sulphur Run, a tributary that empties into the Ohio River, the residents of East Palestine, Ohio, came to know a similar uncertainty. Many people in East Palestine and surrounding areas are still unsure if and how the water they depend on has been impacted by the catastrophe, despite officials declaring that the town’s water is safe.
Most recently, residents of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, found themselves living through post-apocalyptic scenes last month as people rushed to the nearest store in search of bottled water, frantically emptying shelves, after a city-wide announcement that a chemical plant pipe rupture had leaked hazardous materials into a tributary of the Delaware River. City officials have continued to monitor the situation, but have deemed the city’s water “safe” for now.
In the midst of these industry-caused crises, the privatization of water has also become an increasing threat. In 2014, a bankrupt Detroit, Michigan, found itself embroiled in a battle of public opinion against the privatization of its public water utility when city officials sought proposals from private companies to take over its water and sewer systems. In 2015, the city of Missoula, Montana, went to court in a contentious battle to regain control of its water system which had been sold to a company owned by the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm. According to Carlyle’s lawyer, “Water is a product.” After years of legal proceedings, the city successfully regained control of its water. As federal spending on water infrastructure has remained relatively stagnant, state and local spending has dropped, and municipalities across the country are increasingly open to the idea of privatization.
In places where water is not yet scarce, water affordability is a growing concern. This is the case here in Detroit, where 60,000 households are currently at risk of having their water shut off after the city’s COVID-19 emergency moratorium on water shut-offs expired. Tens of thousands of families — like and including my own — are left in a precarious position, having to wonder how much longer they’ll have access to the water they need to live. This news comes after a half-decade of aggressive water shut-offs, resulting in more than 90,000 Detroit households losing water access from 2015 to 2019. In 2014, the United Nations declared the emerging water crisis in Detroit a human rights violation, and nearly a decade later, communities here are still living in its shadows. In 2022, the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA), a governing body created during Detroit’s bankruptcy proceedings, approved a 3.7 percent water rate increase. This year, the GLWA approved an additional 2.75 percent increase.
As people struggle with the daily effects of inflation and stagnated wages, they have to worry more and more about their water, where it comes from and how they’ll afford it.
Let’s Reclaim Water as a Human Right
Today, the Osun River in Osogbo, Nigeria, which once glittered like the goddess it was named for, runs muddy. The river is considered a sacred site within the Yoruba tradition, a place where cherished ceremonies are held and offerings are given. In recent years, the river has been polluted by plastics and heavy metals leaching to its surface from illegal mining operations, threatening the river’s ecosystems and rendering the water, which was once sweet enough to be the namesake of Oshun, unsafe for use. In the story of Oshun leaving the Earth, water was inextricably connected to love. When the water on Earth dried up, the love left with it. Without water and without love, no life could flourish. From this spiritual perspective, if our society will not protect the safety and sanctity of the water we all depend on for life, how could we ever expect it to treat us with love and compassion?
This planet blessed us with all the water we would ever need to sustain an infinite amount of life, but the industries that the capitalist system has privileged over the sanctity of the water and the divinity of all forms of life on this planet continue to contaminate, pollute and destroy those water sources. Somehow, we have come to know water, a resource characterized by its natural abundance, as the latest casualty of late capitalism’s doctrine of scarcity.
Seeing a politician drink a glass of tap water after our water sources have been contaminated or compromised in some other way doesn’t make anyone feel better; it doesn’t sow the seeds for deeper trust in the system which created and allowed these disasters in the first place. What would sow deeper trust is a society that explicitly ensures our human right to accessible and affordable fresh, clean, safe and protected water. What is the moral obligation of a government supposedly designed to represent and reflect the will of the people if not to ensure that the people have clean and safe water to drink? If not to guarantee our basic and fundamental human right to water? If not to make sure the water we need to live is affordable and not contaminated?
Water is essential for all life on Earth. So what does it mean when our governments willingly sacrifice and endanger the well-being of the water we depend on? When they knowingly allow people to consume poisoned water, when they allow corporations to contaminate precious water sources with carcinogenic toxins and disrupt necessary ecosystems, when they allow private companies to purchase and claim “ownership” over water sources so they can sell water back to us at inflated prices, when they allow utility entities to raise the price of water each year — what does it mean when governments do all this without even so little as an apology and without the promise to never let it happen again?
Water is not only a literal source of life but a symbol of the love, nurturing and compassion that guides life forward. When the water is respected, let it be a sign that we, as a society, have come back to love as a guiding principle, that we exist in a society where all people are met and treated with mutual compassion, where our healing is affirmed and embraced, where our lives are considered sacred.
Within spiritual perspectives across time and space, we find water likened to love, healing and compassion. These frameworks open us to understanding that love and compassion are just as essential to life as water. As beings deserving of life — and as people striving toward structures and institutions that are truly representative of our will — we deserve governments that reflect this love, that treat us with compassion, that make our healing possible, and that protect and preserve the sacred waterways we all depend on for this life.
A society that ensures the fundamental human right to water meets us from a perspective of love and compassion. One that denies and rejects the right of all to accessible, affordable and safe water perpetuates the most nefarious kind of violence. If a system will exploit and destroy the water, it will absolutely exploit and destroy human life.
Water is a human right. Water is life. Water is love.