Friday, August 17, 2012

So I have water. You want me to feel bad?

I saw this graphic on Facebook, and I wonder what the intended message is:

Image source.
Text: "Each day, the average American uses a minimum of 130 gallons of clean water. Each day, 783 million people use as little as 5 gallons of unclean water."

So, no source is cited, but I'll just assume those 2 statements are true. Even though I don't get what it means by "the average American uses a minimum of 130 gallons"- how can it be both average and minimum? Maybe they took an average for every day of the year, and the lowest average was 130? Who knows. Whatever. I don't like how it's worded.

So we have 2 true statements here, but since they're presented together like that, the reader is obviously supposed to see it as some kind of a comparison.

Maybe it's innocent. Maybe the comparison is just to give me an idea of what amount of water I think is "normal", so that I'm able to understand how low 5 gallons is. Perhaps if I had no idea how much water I use every day, I wouldn't understand that "5 gallons" is absurdly low.

Maybe it's just to show that other people live very differently than I do, and that's just reality.

But that's not what I felt when I read this. I felt like it was almost an accusation. It was trying to make me feel guilt. The juxtaposition of those 2 statistics sends the message "Americans are hogging all the water, and they should feel BAD because other people don't have clean water."

As if there's something WRONG with Americans using 130 gallons, when other people don't even have clean water.

No. The amount of water I use on a given day has NO EFFECT on the water available to people ON A DIFFERENT CONTINENT.


This cat keeps flushing the toilet, and that's the reason that children in India die of diarrhea. Image source.

If other people don't have clean water, it's because they don't have the infrastructure to bring them water where they live. It's because the technology hasn't been put in place where they live. And that's a problem. Everyone should have clean water. But I don't see how any good can come out of a comparison like the one in the above image. It seems like it's just trying to make Americans feel bad.

If you want to judge whether it's good or bad for the average American to use 130 gallons of water, let's look at what it's doing to the environment. Let's look at what it's doing to the supply of fresh water in the US. But the fact that someone 5000 miles away doesn't have a pipe going to their house has no bearing on whether it's somehow immoral for me to take a long shower.

Yes, let's donate to World Vision (I just did) and other organizations that work to bring water to every part of the world. Because it totally is a problem, and it totally is something that a lot of organizations are working on, making progress, improving people's lives. But I see no reason that I should think it's immoral to use 130 gallons of water for myself every day.

And issues like this- about poverty, injustice, lack of resources- they're so hard to understand because I've never experienced anything like that before. I don't know what I'm supposed to feel. I tried my best to present the facts accurately when I wrote about the world's water and sanitation crisis. It's a problem, and those of us who are able to donate money should definitely do so, but at the same time I don't think it's right to guilt people into it, and I don't want us to view other parts of the world as some homogeneous lump of impoverished one-dimensional people, who spend all their time being sad about how they don't have food or education. They're real people. They have families, they have inside jokes, they have interests and dreams.

And maybe it's impossible for me to understand without actually visiting another country and meeting the people who live that way.

What do you think? Is there some kind of accusation/guilt implied in the above graphic? How should we respond to those statistics?


  1. When I see that statistic, I think -- huh, what would my day look like if I could only use 4% of the water I use now, and it wasn't clean? It would be very difficult to keep myself healthy. What can I do to help more people have access to clean water?

    1. And when you imagine what your life would be like with only 4% of the water you use... how does that work? Because it's impossible for me to imagine that. I wish I had a realistic idea of what other people's lives are like in different parts of the world.

    2. This might give you an idea: Part 1 and Part 2.

    3. Thanks! Those videos were pretty good- I like how the guy talked about his actual experiences meeting actual people, and how he respects them and got to know them a little- rather than portraying it as "oh look at the millions of sad, one-dimensional people- they need you to throw money at them- how could anyone LIVE without water???!!!!" Also he talked about the process of getting a committee together, and why that's important, etc.

  2. I tend to think that the comparison isn't intended to make people feel guilty, because you're right, the fact that people cannot get clean water has no bearing on whether you are immoral to take that shower. I wonder if the numbers are implying that we don't need the whole 130 gallons, that we use that much water just because we can? That we do waste water, and we think it's ok to do that?

    If at all, I think the comparison just shows how much resources you (we) have and asks what you are going to do with them. Do you decide to shut your eyes and ignore that there is a need for clean water out there, or are you going to do something to help others live better?

    1. Hmm, I see what you mean. The comparison still makes me uneasy though- the fact is, we need to help people by donating money to organizations that are working to give them water, NOT by changing our own water-usage or feeling bad about it.