World Pulse

How to Change the Way We Think about Water

All human beings are deeply affected by water and its movements. When we go on vacation we go to the water. We slide over it, across it, through it. We swim in it. We take part in water rituals and want to be nurtured by water ... we thirst for it.

Yet water, in a very deep way, is a women's issue. It is vital to the role women play in caring for their families. Women bathe and nourish their young, often tend the crops, and are the keepers of the waters. When fetching potable water requires distance, there is less time for the family and abject poverty and disease result.

A Charged Stillness

I have never thought of myself as an activist, but I am active on the path of getting to know water on its own terms. The activism comes in relating water's story as I read it, in sharing the wonder of it, and helping to awaken a consciousness of it.

My task is to find the language of water and to learn it to the best of my ability.

My relationship with water began on the Vermont farm where I grew up. As a child, I stood in mud puddles, watching water enter finely silted brown pools. Such amazing forms in this laboratory! Aware of nature's surging flows, and of the songbird's bright joy, I'd walk in the crunchy, melting snow and listen to the drops of maple falling.

Now I work to change how we think about water -- to shift our understanding of water as a commodity to an appreciation for water as a human right, an environmental right.

This work reaches back to great activists of our modern times. Mother Theresa, Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Henry David Thoreau, among others, showed us that outward activism arises out of a charged stillness within. Here, in active listening into a situation or condition, we hear and see what to do.

It is a special kind of listening -- a sensitive and intimate dialogue. When one realizes that one is truly being listened to, there is no resistance, only openness and receptivity and the speaker receives and the listener gives back.

Such is the case with water.

Where water can tell its story, on its own terms, there is language and communication. My task is to find the language and to learn it to the best of my ability.

Learning in Nature's Laboratory

The most fruitful way to see the hidden nature of water, is to observe water, to listen to water, and to comprehend how it behaves as it moves.

When we take away water's flexibility, it's balancing capacity, we take away its role as a mediator between life and death.

When we listen, we learn that water serves life through processes of change and rhythm. Water motion is always organized, fluid and flexible. We can understand it as though reading someone's "body language" to assess their state of being.

Water that is allowed to move according to its own nature cleanses itself and sustains life. This is our model for the future. If water is not allowed to move and change and be open to organizing principles, if it becomes stagnant, then it becomes dead.

When we observe water and begin to ask questions of it, allowing it at each level to tell its story, we realize we've accessed something deeper than what can be seen by the eyes.

Sit by a stream and watch the water move. See the form water takes as it moves over rocks ... It flows smoothly and freely, slipping downward into a gulley. See that the bank is still and solid and yet continually changed by the river. See that when water moves freely, it is answered by a system of organic forms, movements and rhythms -- an integrated system of life processes and substances that allows water to mediate all life needs in order to exist on earth.

If water becomes stuck or hindered, static or gummed-up, it can't do its work. We need to understand that the implications of this are far, far reaching. When we take away water's flexibility, it's balancing capacity, we take away its role as a mediator between life and death.

Inside our bodies, water is the transporter of substances. It dissolves things...builds up calories and proteins. It flows incredibly precious materials from one place to another and transforms things in the body. We become ill when our water is not easily distributed, not able to move. We get a clot, or have an aneurysm.

The same happens with our earth. We dam water without any understanding of what's happening and how it needs to flow. Dams that are not being used are not good for the environment and should be torn down. Dams that are necessary can be used judiciously where people understand what the environment is and allow the river to thrive.

Systems in Motion: Our Model for the Future

Without water, there is no life. Global environmental mismanagement affects the roots of family, village and climate. Water is the metaphor for transformation in the sacred rituals of peoples all over the world.

We say water is good when it doesn't have any viruses. We say it's good when it doesn't have any nuclear components, when it's odorless and colorless. In other words, water is good when it's not bad. But what else is good water?

Most indigenous peoples have an understanding through metaphor of what good water is. And water is the metaphor for transformation in the sacred rituals of peoples all over the world. The metaphor is not an empty thing. It's real, and it comes from an innate knowledge of water. By relying on quantitative measurements, Western science misses out on a whole realm of knowledge found in the attributes of water. We can access that knowledge if we learn to look at water in a different way.

What is most important is that we don't try to piecemeal water but that we try to find its indivisibility, its wholeness. Water can show us these things if we systematically observe it and know its story.

When we look at the whole rather than just the parts; context more than the so-called objective; quality more than quantity; networks more than hierarchies; and processes more than structures, we access a more complete picture of water, and we come to understand what makes it sacred.

So we can say that water serves life, yes. But we can also do more. We can also show how, and that makes things much more comprehensible to policy makers and to educators. It changes the very way people breathe, and it touches their souls.

We are adding this to education, so that along with traditional ways of monitoring water quality, we teach the other side of water, too -- the life-supporting side. In knowing how water serves life, we get beyond the pollutants and see solutions. It's beautiful, it's totally exciting, and at the same time humbling.

Women Rise Up to Tackle the Water Crisis

The following is a podcast for World Pulse Magazine.

I'm Rhyen Coombs, and I'm speaking with Melinda Kramer, founding director of the Women's Earth Alliance in Berkeley, California. The Women's Earth Alliance unites environmental advocates working to solve problems like water access and sanitation in their communities, by providing connections, resources and training.

This alliance grew out of the Women's Global Green Action Network, which Melinda co-founded in 2005. Melinda has worked with grassroots organizations around the world on issues of environmental justice, sustainable local economies and indigenous rights. Today, she is also the communications and outreach coordinator for the Natural Capital Institute. Melinda says her work is about creating spaces for people to come together, breaking isolation and tapping collective wisdom to create social change.

Rhyen Coombs: Melinda, how do you see community-based women's groups taking part in the global water movement?

Melinda Kramer: I see community-based organizations playing a huge role in the global water movement, primarily because in many ways, women are really on the front lines of issues around water and sanitation; especially community-based women who are responsible for getting clean water and making sure the water is available, bringing it back to their families and providing for their communities. It's really essential that women have the tools they need, and the information they need, and the connections that they need to ensure that that water is available. By default, women are on the front lines of this issue, and seeking opportunities for more access to information, more access to technologies, and more access to their right to water.

RC: So, tell me a bit about your organization, the Women's Earth Alliance. What role is it playing in the water movement?

MK: Women's Earth Alliance is a global organization that links women working in environmental sustainability from around the world. And we provide opportunities for women to exchange resources, share best practices, build alliances around various environmental issues, and really amplify the voices of women around environmental sustainability. In particular, we have a focus on water because women are so inextricably linked to issues of water. And the role that we play is to provide spaces, whether they're virtual or face-to-face, opportunities for women to convene and share what they're learning and what they know and the challenges that they're coming up against around issues of water.

RC: What are the most innovative programs or activities you're seeing around water and sanitation today?

MK: Where I get excited is where there are community-based initiatives that empower in particular women with the technologies and the tools to transfer safe water projects into their community that are also income-generating, so that women as water keepers -- playing the role that they have always played -- have an opportunity to provide that source to their community while also creating a livelihood for themselves, so that they're bringing abundance into their community while also bringing abundance into their own home.

RC: Can you tell me more about who's on the front lines of these initiatives?

MK: We are creating a conference in June that is a partnership effort of a number of organizations because we find that these organizations are really -- they're implementing the solutions. They're modeling the solutions. We are working with GROOTS Kenya. They really specialize in women's collectives and cooperatives and have a lot of experience in local community-based water efforts. We're also working with the Green Belt Movement. The Green Belt Movement has also done a number of community-based projects on water. Finally, we're also working with an organization called A Single Drop. A Single Drop is actually based out of the Philippines, and they've worked with women in particular around water and sanitation projects. Crabgrass is another great organization, a small international human rights organization that specializes in conferences around women and water.

RC: Melinda, you mentioned the conference coming up in June. We'd heard that your African Women and Water Conference was supposed to be happening this month in Nairobi, but that it got pushed back. Can you tell me a bit more about that? Who are you expecting to take part, and what do you have planned?

MK: I'm so excited about this initiative. In many ways, it's unprecedented what we're putting together. We originally planned the conference in March, but we've pushed it back to June, because of the political turmoil in Kenya.

We use the word conference, but in many ways it's more like a workshop or a training. The way it will work will be 30 women will be attending and taking the training, from all throughout East, West, South Africa. And they'll be coming in teams of two. And the reason we're having them come in teams of two, is there's a lot that they're going to be absorb in these five days, and its great to have someone alongside you to absorb what you might forget.

The other really important reason, which was a recommendation from past programs we've done, is that sometimes no matter how great your training is, and the ideas you have and the concept that you bring back into your a woman on your own, trying to implement a project, you can come across challenges. And we learned that it's much better to have a teammate -- to have someone who's voicing the need for the project that you're envisioning -- with you.

So these 15 teams will come together, and based on the criteria that they've described as the needs that they have in their community around water and sanitation, they will be choosing a technology track. Now, they may be choosing solar pasteurization, rainwater harvesting, household water filtration. In the morning they'll be learning the technology; they'll be hands-on. The trainers will be local African women leaders who have learned these technologies and have actually implemented them in their communities and can speak to the various challenges and learnings that they've come across in implementing the water service project.

In the afternoon, there is more organizational development skills and trainings going on: How do you do a needs assessment? How do you write a grant proposal? What is water privatization and how is it affecting our lives? Some of the more conceptual, theoretical questions and issues that are critical to fully understanding what it means to carry out a successful project. So after these trainings, these women will leave having a skill set around a specific technology; the organizational skills that are needed to implement that, an amazing network of women who can support her work into the long term; and a seed grant to go and actually launch the project.

So we're just so excited about the opportunity that is available to these women. And these applications! I mean each one, their stories, their leadership -- they're all community leaders. They've implemented various types of projects in their communities, and they're embarking on an endeavor that will transform their lives and their communities' lives, and we just have so much confidence that they will take this opportunity and run with it.

RC: Can you share any details about the women who will be attending, or are you at that point yet?

MK: We have accepted our 30 women, and they span the continent. We have a wonderful South African woman named Sizani Ngubane; she is a mentor of mine. She is the founder of the Rural Women's Movement, which organizes hundreds of women's organizations and groups throughout her region. She will be bringing a younger woman with her, who is learning from her and in her community and will most likely take on leadership for years to come. And so the two of them will be coming together and bringing this information back to the hundreds of groups that they work with. So it's just an example of kind of the ripple effect of when two women learn something, we can know that it's going to be many more that will learn it as well.

RC: That's a beautiful image! Now, are there any other events this year that you're excited about?

MK: Another event that's coming up, actually the same month, which will keep me quite busy for the month of June, I've very excited about, is a program called Transformative Advocacy. And this is a program of Women's Earth Alliance where we convene women professionals with local women activists around a particular issue in a particular region based on a stated need.

This year we're going to be uniting women public interest attorneys with local Native American women activists. And we will be traveling through Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, learning from these amazing women's initiatives, understanding the challenges that they face, and seeing where appropriate the structure and the foundation of environmental justice law might be relevant in and useful. This group of women, both the local hosts and also the visitors, will collaboratively design an advocacy strategy, based on the knowledge that is available in that room, and the issues at hand.

So when we say transformative advocacy exchange, we really mean it is an exchange that does transform everyone who is involved. Because you step in having certain skills to bear, but you also have much to learn, and we create a situation where everyone has something to give and something to learn. And they weave together their skills, their knowledge, their wisdom, into something very powerful. So we're really excited about what will come of that.

RC: So what would be the best way for individuals or other community groups who might be interested to connect with the global water movement?

MK: There are so many different avenues to enter into this movement. Women's Earth Alliance provides a forum for people to learn about and share on various different levels. So, it's a great way to plug in and connect with other women's initiatives that are focusing on something perhaps you'd want to learn more about, or that you want to offer your expertise in. It's really a platform for people to exchange and identify what they need.

RC: Along those lines of getting involved -- are there ways we could be supporting the water movement with our purchasing choices?

MK: I was just thinking about this today when I was walking down the street, and I was seeing water bottle after water bottle after water bottle, and it seems like such a simple thing. But the water bottle business is so destructive and unnecessary that it needs to change. And it's a shift that we can make with not a whole lot of hassle for many of us to use re-usable, water bottles as opposed to plastic.

The problems go beyond just waste. They go into human rights issues, and since we're here talking about women, they often translate into injustices to women, who are sometimes in communities that really feel the brunt of these challenges. So, that is something that we can all do, is think about -- do I need to buy a plastic bottle, or can I use what I already have?

RC: Now, Melinda, on a practical level, what obstacles do you see preventing women from really organizing effectively around these water issues?

MK: Unfortunately, even though women are key to water sustainability and have been the water keepers across cultures and across generations, there are barriers -- political, social and economic barriers -- for women as they attempt to bring and usher in clean water to their communities. And that often looks like political injustices, where women aren't in positions to participate in policy. It sometimes has to do with violence, where women are trying to access clean water, and they are having to walk long distances. It has to do with women who are not getting an education because they have to be fetching water all day. And it has to do with access, to information, to technologies, to opportunities to translate clean water into livelihood opportunities. They're out there, and yet it's very hard for many, many, many women around the world to access them. So really, it is an issue of access.

RC: That segues nicely into one of my biggest questions. And that is -- how do you see online technology today changing the way activists and advocates are organizing? Are they finding each other? Does it make a difference?

MK: I think online technology is very influential in how we are connecting with each other and becoming more effective advocates -- and certainly water advocates, in particular. We're talking about access. And oftentimes, it is an issue of lack of information, and lack of available best practices. Understanding that someone else has seen the same challenge in their community, and designed a solution, and shared that -- I mean, that alone can be transformative for someone who's trying to embark on changing a situation in their community.

So suddenly there is this wealth of information, and resources, and links, and stories of best practices that are available, that at one point was not available. So when we can create opportunities for women who are doing this work to access other women, to access information around policy, or science, or technology, it's quite a service. And it's one step to getting to where they need to get to create change. Now, of course, face-to-face support and exchange and teaching and learning -- you can't get better than that. But sometimes what we learn in our face-to-face coming together needs to be transferred to others, so that they can learn. We have that opportunity, and it's getting cheaper, and it's getting more efficient, and it's getting easier. So it's quite an opportunity.

RC: We're definitely excited about that, too. Is there anything else you want to make sure the community knows about?

MK: I would just encourage everyone to visit our website, And it's just such an opportunity for us to expand the weaving of our web. And the more people that get involved with Women's Earth Alliance, the stronger our network is, because there's more wisdom, there's more experiences, there's more skills to bear. And everyone who's showed up has been the right person, so we just always like to invite more people to join the conversation.