Francis Raven (bio)



Notes on the Distribution of Water


We use too much (insert resource). If you pay me, I’ll use less. In fact, if you pay me I’ll use as little of the resource as the poorest person on earth, that’s what I should do, right? I mean, if I were a good person I would strip myself of my stuff until I had no more than was necessary (and yes, there are problems with figuring out how much of a good is necessary, but they are not insurmountable difficulties) – this is my moral obligation according to Peter Singer1. But if you pay me I’ll have enough money to buy more (insert resource) than you and then we’ll be in the exact situation we started in (with me having more of the resource and you having less). As political philosopher Michael Walzer writes, simple equality is where everyone is given the same amount of stuff, but is unstable because people don’t consume, spend, and save their stuff in the same way2. Okay, so the thought is that if you give everyone the same amount of money (as opposed to water) then everyone will be really equal. But, of course, if you give us all the same amount of money we’re going to spend it differently. Some people will invest it in houses and educations and the stock market, other people will buy fancy candy bars or poetry books or organic beef, and still others will give their money away. After a while we will not be equal anymore; we’ll have to keep redistributing all the money so that everyone continually has the same amount. Of course, this strips the fun from money. I’m just not really sure what to do.

What if everyone were given a cup of water each day and couldn’t buy more? They would die, that’s what. But then, who would get their cups of water for the next day? Their children? The state? Those are serious problems, but here’s another problem: those people (meaning everybody) are going to excrete their cups of fluid and it’s eventually going to end up in some river and, you know, “we all live down stream.” Of course, nobody wants their water to be full of pee and some people will pay not to drink water that’s been contaminated. These are the rich people. They’ll get their water upstream. They’ll get their water at the top. But the problem is that there is no top: the earth just goes around and around.

I know we need more renewable energy, so there’s this river, let’s call it X. And I think everyone in the United States could have their own dam on X. As Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke write in their book Blue Gold, “In the 20th century, 800,000 small dams and 40,000 large dams (more than four stories high) were constructed.”3 So let’s say there are 300 Million Americans, this means that in the 20th century .0028 dams were built for each American. But I think we can do a lot better; I think we could put 300 million dams on X. I know it’s going to take a lot of work, but think how great it will be. Each of us can name our own dam. But actually this might not be such a good idea because “the tremendous weight of water in a basin not designed to hold it deforms the earth’s crust beneath it, sometimes causing earthquakes. There is now documented evidence linking earth tremors to some 70 dams. In fact, the shift of weight when so much water is moved by human technology is affecting the earth’s rotation.”4 So with 300 million dams on X the earth might rotate right into Mars in the midst of an enormous earthquake. Maybe we need to get some more policy solutions at the table.

I know that fresh H2O is not as common as one would expect. (Almost none of the 1.4 billion km3 of water on earth is available for human consumption – 97.5% of it is in the ocean and 2/3rds of the remaining 2.5% is locked in the polar ice caps. Much of the rest is too far underground for human use. This leaves only 90,000 km3 of water, or .26% of total global water in freshwater lakes and rivers (where we obtain most of our water).5) But I also know that water is not distributed evenly across the globe. Some places have lots of rain and lots of lakes and lots of streams and other places have none. What we really need to do, if we believe in equity, is to find a way of efficiently transporting fresh water from places with lots of it (like the rainy side of the Big Island of Hawaii, which gets 5,100 millimeters of precipitation) to the Sahara Desert. Okay, so this setup is going to be extremely costly, but I think it’s worth it. I mean, we need to do it for the people. Everybody deserves the same amount of water as everyone else. We need to be equal with respect to our essential fluid, not just with respect to votes. It’s a human right, or it should be: the same amount of water for each global citizen. It’s going to take a lot of energy (and political willpower) to transport water from Hawaii to Africa, but fossil fuels are another resource, I’m only interested in water.

There are only so many clean beaches to go around: we need a way of distributing them. In fact, in 1999 the White House reported that “350 of the 1,062 beaches surveyed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported closures or health advisories.”6 This means that over a third of all surveyed beaches have been closed at one time or another for health reasons. In addition, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a non-profit environmental group, said in its annual beach quality report of 2000 that there had been at least 6,160 warnings and beach closures issued during 1999.7 Here’s a policy solution: we should have a lottery and the only people who can enter and those individuals who think that they enjoy the beach more than the rest of us. After these people come forward we can then figure out where the cut-off line will be. Would you come forward? I would. I love wetlands and cold reading beaches covered in driftwood and sun-drunk ones too. The lottery would determine the ranking of individuals who self-described themselves as loving the beach. If this system were in place we would all know whether we could go to the beach or not.

It’s not just that each person needs water to live their lives, but that each person needs clean water. Unfortunately, although those who are alive have water (because humans cannot live for more than 3-4 days without it)8 many people in the developing world don’t have clean water. In fact, according to Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke, “Half the people on this planet lack basic sanitation services…So it is not surprising that 80 percent of the diseases in the poor countries of the South are spread by consuming unsafe water. The statistics are sobering: 90 percent of the Third World’s wastewater is still discharged untreated into local rivers and streams; water borne pathogens and pollution kill 25 million people every year; every eight seconds, a child dies from drinking contaminated water; and every year, diarrhea kills nearly three million children, a full quarter of the deaths in this age group.”9 This sickening prognosis needs to be reversed. And it needs to be reversed now. One of two things must occur in order to fully overturn these trends: (1) each person on the planet needs to be equipped with their own water sanitation facility. This would be very expensive but if everyone had one the costs would be radically reduced (economies of scale). The idea would be that each person should have the ability to take responsibility for their own clean H2O. Right now people don’t have this opportunity. And if this is truly going to be an ownership society the first thing we should own is our bodies and the second thing is our water. However, if this setup proves politically unfeasible we just might have to move to plan b: (2) all of the world’s water could be transported first to a central cleaner (hopefully in a politically neutral country) and then transported back to the country of origin in a manner promoting equity and respect for individual life. This plan could not be accomplished on the cheap and would require several million helicopters to fly from water source to Switzerland and back to individuals. We could think of this second plan as the Water Santa Claus Plan. It’s a logistical nightmare, but then again, so was a centralized economy and many countries tried that for a good long time. There is no reason why we shouldn’t try this second plan as a political response to the problem of worldwide dirty water. I know there are other policy solutions that would work, but I think we have a winner here.


1) Signer, Peter. "Famine, Affluence and Morality." Philosophy and Public Affairs 1 (Spring), 1972, pp. 229-43 Return

2) Walzer, Michael. Spheres of Justice. New York: Basic Book, 1983, p. 14. Return

3) Barlow, Maude and Tony Clarke. Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop Corporate Theft of the World’s Water. New York: The New Press, 2003, p. 48. Return

4) Ibid., p.49. Return

5) Black, Maggie. The No-Nonsense Guide to Water. New York: Verso, 2004, p. 11. Return

6) The Office of the Press Secretary. “White House Press Release on Improving Water Quality.” May 29, 1999. Available online at:  Return

7) Chrisafis, Angelique. “Polluted Waters Afflict Many US Beaches - CA Leads The Way.” London: The Guardian, 8-4-00. Available online at:  Return

8) Irvin, Jill. “Re: How long can a human live without water and food.” Internet post. Ohio State University, 1999. Available online at:


9) Ibid., Barlow and  Clarke, pp. 52-53. Return