Dear Matt Damon,
I don’t know you, but I want to thank you for showing up. I admire your passion for tackling a problem few in the general public are thinking about – access to clean, affordable drinking water and sanitation. The organization is doing incredible and important work and I hope to see your efforts with Water.org and Stella Artois succeed. However, I was struck by the disconnect between a quote from you at the World Economic Forum in Davos which read, “Access to clean water and sanitation is just not something we think about, we solved this problem in the West 100 years ago…”, and the reality faced by many regions in this country – looming water shortages. You see, the problem is far from solved in the West. Indeed, while we have figured out the engineering behind drinking water and sanitation, we’ve done it at a high cost – for decades we’ve been borrowing from the future. And the “future” consequences? That future is now.
Our approach to water in this country has generally been one of unfettered use of water combined with infrastructure that sheds water extremely efficiently from our buildings and roads into nearby streams and rivers never to be seen again. But these human systems don’t take into account how and why the water got there in the first place, and don’t recognize why we are slowing running ourselves dry.
Water is life. Plants hold on to water. In drier places, if there is excess the plants store it away in aquifers below ground to access in times of drought (it’s called hydraulic redistribution). Come to a prairie in the summer during a rainstorm and you’ll find no runoff. In wetter places, the plants capture it, breathe it out as water vapor and release organic aerosols which induce the water to fall back down again. Step into a rainforest and you can’t help but feel the water surround you like a blanket and squish underneath you. These water cycles affect weather patterns that define ecosystems, and the ecosystems themselves influence those patterns.
Everywhere we live in the western world, our developments disrupt and displace these water cycles by taking away the species and systems that perform the functions of recharging groundwater and replacing them with agriculture or infrastructure that does not. The result is increasing costs and decreasing supplies. In my home region of Chicago, water shortages loom for huge populations living off increasingly concentrated aquifers. In our specialized world, no one seems to make the connection between our disruption of natural water cycles and our water shortages. Were we to try to build back in the functions embodied in native ecosystems present before development, starting with the principle of treating water as the precious resource it is and thus holding onto as much of it as we can, we would go a long way towards addressing our current water crises, especially in light of increasing uncertainty in weather patterns caused by climate change.
So if ending the “global water crisis” is really your goal, I implore you to think holistically about water as you work with Water.org and Stella Artois to bring drinking water and sanitation to millions of people around the world. Adopt a fundamentally different approach to your work than that embodied in western infrastructure – use one that learns from and encourages other to emulate the incredibly resilient and sustainable strategies embodied in ecological systems. Take this opportunity to partner with communities to create truly long-term water management solutions that ensure the availability of drinking water for generations to come. Otherwise, you will replicate the mistake of borrowing from an increasingly uncertain future. It’s a mistake these populations can’t afford.