[OPINION] The water you drink and use – and why you should care more

Last week, I was privileged to speak at the Sustainability Summit 2018 hosted by Enderun Colleges. The conference brought together leaders from government, business, civil society, and academia to discuss one of the major sustainability issues of our time – water.

Dubbed "the new oil," water is under threat today, as this vital natural resource faces enormous pressures from continuous population growth and rapid urbanization to environmental pollution and climate change. Only one percent of our planet's water is fresh water, and a much smaller portion of that can sustain human consumption.

Despite being an archipelago surrounded by a lot of water, the Philippines is not exempted from the challenges faced by water resources. Latest statistics show that out of 101 million Filipinos, nine million people do not have clean, safe and sustainable water sources, while 19 million lack access to improved sanitation.

In short, both the quantity and quality of water in the Philippines are at great risk.

Concept called 'anthropocene'

Let us take a step back to understand from a systems perspective the challenges faced by water.

In his keynote talk, former congressman Neric Acosta, who also previously led the Laguna Lake Development Authority and was principal author of major environmental laws including the Clean Water Act, introduced the concept called the "Anthropocene."

A student of geology will easily recognize that this sounds like the Paleocene epoch, which followed the extinction of dinosaurs, or the Holocene epoch, which is our current era that has seen most of human civilization.

However, Anthropocene, whose root word "Anthropo" means "man," is a newly proposed epoch in the geologic time scale to denote the massive "humanization" of the natural planet, which led to many of the large-scale environmental changes that we are now seeing, including "anthropogenic" climate change.

Water in the age of the Anthropocene is very much different from the water that humans consumed thousands or even a hundred years ago.

Drinking water is sold in plastic bottles, which pollute water resources in return. As a result, one of the biggest problems in the 21st century is the "plastic ocean." Marine organisms feed on microplastics, which kill them, or when caught, can be consumed by humans.

Meanwhile, some of our today's water is enclosed, owned, distributed, and sold by private entities – which is, on one hand, good for sound and innovative management of clean and safe water, but on the other hand, makes water unreachable for those who cannot afford.

Health sounds the alarm

In the Anthropocene age, human activities have substantially altered the environment – and now, these changes are affecting us in return. The health of the population sounds the alarm when there is disturbance in nature.

Unfortunately, health is usually an afterthought – we only realize how important it is when our own health is already being put at risk.

In the panel discussion on public health, I raised some of the health consequences of water problems in the age of the Anthropocene. Nearly two-thirds of the human body is comprised of water. Hence, water scarcity can have direct negative consequences on the body's chemical balance.

But quantity is not the only concern.

Bad water quality is detrimental to human health too.

For instance, water polluted with human waste can also contaminate food, which can be a cause of diarrheal disease. Stagnant water can be a breeding ground for mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue, while flooding may produce a leptospirosis outbreak, such as the one that the Department of Health (DOH) declared in July 2018. Waste water from factories and leakage of pesticides into the ground water can lead to chemical poisoning.

And there are new emerging threats to water in the 21st century.

Improper disposal of unused pharmaceutical products can release these molecules into the water system, which can ultimately contribute to the growing global problem of antimicrobial resistance. This means that there will come a time when antibiotics, if not used and managed properly, are not anymore working to get rid of infections.

Meanwhile, due to the fast melting of ice, climate change is making the sea level rise, which leads to seawater intrusion of fresh water resources. Coastal communities then consume water high in salt, which can be a cause of hypertension. This phenomenon is already beginning to be observed in Bangladesh, one of the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world where the sea level is rising at a rapid rate.

Need for 'nexus' approach

Water issues also intersect with myriad challenges in other sectors.

Water is used for irrigation to produce agricultural crops that we consume in the dinner table. It is also an important input to the production of energy, whether through hydroelectric dams or for cooling of power plants. Given these interconnections, the sustainable development community has adopted a "Water-Energy-Food (WEF) nexus" framework to address shared challenges across the three sectors.

The same "nexus" approach can be adopted for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which is the current framework for international development adopted by the United Nations and the world's governments in 2015. The global community is under time pressure for meeting these goals – we only have 12 years remaining until the 2030 deadline. Moreover, financial resources are very limited, and the SDGs have 17 goals and 169 targets that need to be met, covering every aspect of society.

The good thing is that many of these SDGs are interconnected.

For instance, the goal for clean water and sanitation (Goal 6) interacts with other goals such zero hunger (Goal 2), good health and well-being (Goal 3), affordable and clean energy (Goal 7), sustainable cities and communities (Goal 11), responsible consumption and production (Goal 12), and climate action (Goal 13). To achieve all these, a "nexus" approach that maximizes potential synergies between goals must be embraced.

One example of a "nexus" solution presented during the Summit is the AGREA Farm School. A social enterprise based in Marinduque province, AGREA aims to achieve a "One-Island Economy" model marked by "3 zeros: – zero waste, zero hunger, and zero insufficiency – through capacity building of farmers and other community-based activities. A quick review of their programs will reveal that AGREA's work covers several SDGs such as food security, water protection, livelihood, health and nutrition, environmental protection, etc. – a reflection of a "nexus" approach.

From Ego-system to Eco-system

Our unrestrained activities have brought us to the Anthropocene marked by human despair and environmental destruction. However, while we have not yet crossed the point of no return, we are given an opportunity to protect our health, preserve our threatened resources, and restore our only home.

Towards the end of his keynote speech, Neric urged the audience to have a shift of mindset from "ego-system" to "eco-system."

Being in an ego-system means standing at the top of nature’s pyramid, dominating over other creatures and separate from the rest of the environment. Meanwhile, living in an eco-system means being one with nature, deeply connected with and not superior than the others.

Transitioning from "ego-system" to "eco-system" therefore requires getting rid of our selfish ways and forging a more harmonious relationship with nature. The Summit's discussions have showcased how governments, businesses, communities, families, and individuals can play a role in reorienting our trajectory towards healthy ecology.

This new direction is certainly a no-regrets strategy for all of us in the age of the Anthropocene. After all, as a physician and public health practitioner, I have seen how dying environments can kill us, but also how a living ecosystem can heal us. – Rappler.com

 

Renzo Guinto (@RenzoGuinto) is a physician and currently a Doctor of Public Health candidate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He is also currently establishing PH Lab, a "glocal think-and-do tank" for generating innovative solutions for Philippine health, public health, and planetary health. He can be reached at https://scholar.harvard.edu/renzoguinto

Graphics based on Ego-System vs Ecosystem