Droughts of the brain

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 March, 2007, 12:00am

Water rationing was perhaps the most unforgettable experience of my childhood in the early 1960s. Long queues of empty buckets lined the streets of Hong Kong, marking people's places in line as they waited for water to be delivered from neighbouring Guangdong's Dongjiang, or East River.

Forty-five years on, we are still haunted by a looming water-shortage crisis the world over.

Unfortunately, we are neither prepared for this nor have we even awakened to the fact that we could be facing many waterless days ahead. But the more worrisome truth is about the 'drought' in human brains.

You might have come across the daily ritual of car washing in Hong Kong. Clean and precious drinking water is used over-generously to clean the sparkling, waxed surfaces of sedans and limousines, which perhaps sit idle most of the day in their expensive garages.

Money is water and water is money. In money-minded Hong Kong and in Chinese culture generally, water has taken on an added symbolic meaning of 'fortune'. Little wonder that the global bottled-water business is thriving. Little wonder, too, that the privatisation of public water supplies is fetching skyrocketing prices and tariffs. Water is considered a tradeable commodity, rather than a finite natural resource and essential public right.

The banks of the To River are lined with idyllic, wooden stilt houses in Fenghuang township, western Hunan province . On a visit there, I was amazed to watch the local people washing their faces, feet, clothes, bed linen, shoes, vegetables, meat, fruit and even mops and brooms in the river. Nobody is concerned about the river's limited carrying capacity, hygiene or self-cleaning capability. The common attitude is that it's nobody's business what happens to the water after it has been used.

Toilets are another upstream and downstream issue. In mainland China, public toilets have not caught up with the country's modernisation. Lack of adequate latrine facilities and unsightly, makeshift toilets befoul rivers, lakes and underground water. You can just close your eyes and smell your way to them.

The group Shaanxi Mothers for Environmental Protection Volunteers is leading the way towards a revolution in toilets. They are empowering village women to turn human and pig waste into biogas by retrofitting pigsties, toilets and kitchen stoves. Their work has the twin goals of keeping the waste from befouling watercourses and discouraging logging for firewood.

Meanwhile, some Beijing students have monitored car washing in the capital, then lobbied the mayor to ban the use of drinking water for that purpose. They succeeded.

Fears of empty wells are here to stay unless there is a drastic change of mentality: people must recognise that water does not come with the lifetime guarantee of a never-ending supply.

We need to cure the current 'brain drought' in the human imagination so that we can recognise and address the problem.

We must decode our planet's stress signals in order to come up with appropriate measures to restore the balance. We desperately need to reclaim the indigenous wisdom of living in harmony with nature.

Farmers, growers and herders have learned, over thousands of years, to decode nature by observing astronomical, meteorological, climatic, ecological and agricultural changes.

There is always room for conservation of precious water resources. We must never forget - every drop counts.

Mei Ng is a board member of Friends of the Earth (HK) and All-China Environment Federation. Thursday is World Water Day