Can the ice bucket challenge raise global water shortage awareness?
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Can the ice bucket challenge raise global water shortage awareness?

By Helen O’Gorman | @HelenOGorman

The ice bucket challenge  phenomenon is a great example of raising awareness and funds for a good cause. Let’s use that platform to face up to another global, life threatening problem – water scarcity.

The meme  was set to encourage donations to motor neurone disease (aka ALS or  Lou Gherig’s disease) charities by nominating participants and daring them to pour a bucket of ice water over their heads within 24 hours of being nominated, or forfeit a donation to the cause. The challenge was started to raise awareness and encourage donations to the American ALS Association. As of August 27, it had raised US$94.3m and the UK MND Association has raise £2m from the campaign.  The Macmillan cancer charity fund in the UK is also asking people to drench themselves and donate to their cause.

Clearly, we are onto something with this water thing.

The challenge has gone viral. Everyone from Hollywood stars, to Emmy award winners, to professional attention seekers (aka reality TV stars), the people in my local grocery shop and even my mother are aware of the ice bucket, but not always of the cause behind it. Many people have no idea what the challenge is trying to raise awareness of, but it has their attention.

So maybe this is a good opportunity to raise awareness of another pressing and widespread challenge facing everyone on the planet. Water scarcity has left more than 1 billion people without access to drinking water in the world’s developing countries. The UN estimates that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world population could live with depleted water supplies. Unless the world takes notice of how much water we use as individuals, shortages will happen sooner and we will start to notice some stark changes to our reality.

In Asia,  New Delhi-ites are joining in with the ice bucket challenge fun, but the fact remains that the middle of summer is not a time to be wasting a precious resource. Few are discussing water shortages in the city, nor the fact that many of the city’s 18 million denizens live in slums without running water or sanitation, and are forced to walk to a communal tap to draw water every morning and then find a not too crowded place to perform their morning ablutions. Despite India’s much lauded 250 million-strong monied classes, responsible for putting India in the top five emerging economies, people still defecate on the street. India is number one on the list of 11 countries where people practice open defecation.  Water supplies are contaminated by defecation; in the rainy season, human waste contaminates vegetable patches.

Today I saw the first nomination on my news feed from southern Thailand, a hot and dry part of the world for much of the year. The tropical rains which used to drown the country through for a few months every year and provide enough water for everyone to throw around at Songkran are no longer to be relied on, though. This year during the Thai New Year water festival in April, government trucks which usually trawl the streets all day refilling water supplies and ensuring Songkran play goes on into the evening, stopped supplying water mid afternoon.

On some of the remote southern islands, the few remaining places where tourists don’t go, water is supplied only by rainfall. The people who live there – from the Chao Ley/Sea Gypsy community – have no electricity, no running water and rely on selling the fish they catch for income. They have no water, or anything else to waste. A friend who visited them for a day trip declined the offer of a post-swim shower; she knew that if she used the water collected, the village would be short. It had not rained for a month or so, and there were no storm clouds on the horizon.

Raising awareness of one cause is a brilliant platform for shining light on another. The staff at US-based Water Project – a clean water non-profit organisation – embraced this and added a unique twist to the challenge, by dousing themselves with cold pond water in New Hampshire.

In terms of scarcity, thinking about how much water we use is one step towards making a change. One group working on measuring how much water we use has developed a water footprint calculator to examine how much water it takes to produce the things we use, eat, drink, sit on, drive around and so on. For instance, it takes 1,291 litres to make a Pizza Margharita, beef weighs in at 15,400l/kg. The Water Footprint Network estimates that up to three litres of water could be used to make one half litre bottle of water.

How much water is used in the ice-bucket-challenge?  There is water in the bucket, water to make the ice, water to generate the electricity used to cool the freezer to make the ice, water used to drill the oil to make the chemicals to make the bucket and we could go on. Make the donation to ALS or MND Association. Then look at WaterAid, Project Samaan and other charities who are working to change how people access water and learn about that too.

Rubble Bucket Challenge

The ice-bucket-challenge  has spawned another serious meme. The Rubble Bucket Challenge from Gaza City asks supporters to take action against the war. The participants do not nominate anyone, there is very little water in Gaza right now, and no electricity to turn it into ice. So these bucket-throwers looked around and used something they have in abundance. Rocks. In the video linked above, a young boy is doused in a bucket of sand, and two men throw buckets of rubble over each other.