Water management is a proxy of the health of society

Laguna Verde in western El Salvador is the source of drinking water for thousands of people, threatened by pollutions and unregulated urban development.

When I was in the Peace Corps in Honduras in the early 90s, I worked on rehabilitating water systems for rural communities along the Caribbean coast. It was an incredible education on the challenges of getting people to work together to build a community water system. In virtually every community, discord and conflict impeded the ability to quickly move forward on designing and building systems. Most of the time, the sources of discord and conflict had nothing to do with water – the causes were usually about unresolved personal or social conflicts that surfaced when we needed people to agree on seemingly simple decisions, like the location of a water tank or the route of a pipeline. The psychology of a water system is complicated!

By the time I finished my Peace Corps service, I came to realize that if a community could build a water system – if they could overcome all the divisions to fund and build a shared water system – then they could pretty much do anything. An example is the community where I lived – Chachahuala – once the community built their water system, they quickly organized to fix the road and the school roof, both of which needed repairs for many years. It was only after the experience of building the water systems that they had the skills and confidence to do these other, simpler tasks.

Years later, I came across the concepts of “water governance” and “social capital”. And I realized that this insight from the Peace Corps could be extrapolated to a societal level. The ability of a society to manage their water resources is a good indicator of the health of a society to govern itself and manage its resources.

“Social capital” can be described as the ‘relationships and skills that enable society to manage public goods’.

This definition is paraphrased from Rogers and Hall at the Global Water Partnership.

The more I understand the challenges of managing water resources, the more I appreciate this deceptively simply definition.

Relationships and skills: these pretty much sum up our life as social creatures – creatures called to be ‘stewards of Creation.” We are called to develop our skills and cultivate relationships that make the world a better place – for us, for all creatures, and for the generations of people and creatures to come after us.

Public goods: the resources that we all need for our wellbeing and our economic development. The concept of a “public good” is a messy one for people who champion individual liberties. When what I do (with my personal freedom) impacts negatively on public goods, then my liberty interferes with others’ liberties. This is why it is so important that liberty is balanced with responsibility.

The way that water resources are managed serves as a very good indicator of “social capital” in a society, because water is a quintessential public good, which requires an extraordinary level of skills to manage, based on relationships across many levels of society.

This can be seen at many levels – from the management of a water system in a small, rural community to the management of a river system (Colorado, Amazon, Mekong) that span many states or countries.

As I write this, I think of this quote by Saint Peter of Alcántara:

“Truly, matters in this world are in a bad state, but the remedy is simple. You and I must first be what we ought to be.”

I think what we ought to be are people with skills to solve problems, cultivating healthy relationships with everyone – whether we like them or not.