‘Nor any drop to drink’

I woke up several times last night, gasping for a drink of water. The cold I’ve had for the past two weeks has kept me dehydrated, constantly thirsty, feeling dry and withered. Water has been there, straight from the tap, cold and clean, and I have appreciated it more than on an ordinary day. I have needed it more.

When I have gone out, walked around town, or headed to the university campus, I have resented the lack of water fountains, the effort that must be made for that vital drink. I have resented it more because of my increased need, but even when I am well, and drink water roughly as often as a camel in the desert, this is something that I notice, and that bothers me, in that quiet, nagging way that important things often do.

When I have stayed in, and read news articles about the protesters at Standing Rock striving to protect clean water, I have resented everything about the moral and cultural desert that the pipeline represents: water being taken so much for granted that it takes a group of people putting themselves at risk to make the world see the value it possesses.

Water is sold in bottles from supermarkets, cafes, airplane trolleys. It is labelled with whichever location or environment will make it sound purer, and therefore more posh, regardless of its actual origins. In Denmark, by law, if you ask for tap water in any dining establishment, they must give it to you, free of charge, yet twice now I have been told it will cost extra. So, in one sense, we do understand the value of water, its worth as a commodity and a product to be made attractive and then sold. In that sense, it is no different from Coke.

On any given map of a country, bodies of water are blanks, negative space to balance out the tangle of names and boundaries, but these names are likely to be thickest right beside them. The maps of most cities feature at least one major water body, around which the city flows, around which it began. The cartographic value of water is distinct from its commercial one, in that it can constitute an unnoticed focal point, an artery through the jumble of city streets.

Clean drinking water is not usually a priority for urban or road maps, which focus on showing you how to get around: if you need to cross it, avoid it, or swim in it, the map will let you know, but for drinking, you’re on your own. Still, camping maps will indicate where clean drinking water can be found. Smaller maps, of museums or shopping centres, for example, occasionally include indications of water fountains. In my work this summer, I asked twelve- and thirteen-year-olds how much they knew about water, and where they thought drinking water came from. The concept of a ‘watershed address’ redrew the map, allowed them to put water at the centre of their personal geographies, rather than at the periphery. It also meant that they saw water systems as interconnected, the effects of their actions upon them as far-reaching.

What those at Standing Rock know about water is that it is necessary for life. They know that it is constantly in motion, and affects immense areas. And they are aware that to risk poisoning it should be abhorrent to all people in all places. There are many people who should know that already, but for whom water is too invisibly embedded in the landscape. It is there, it has always been there, it is assumed always to be there. As on the map it is a blank, open space, in everyday life its value is overlooked, because, for most of us, there is no struggle to find it.

When water becomes valued as a person’s need instead of a consumer’s desire, the thought of putting it at such risk will be recognized as indefensible. When clean drinking water becomes more than an abstract right, protecting the watershed will in turn be an evident and practical goal. There may even, with any luck, be drinking fountains at the university.

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