When you think of tea, you likely imagine a hot cup of comfort by the fire on a chilly day, or a cold refreshing drink by the pool during sweltering summer. If I asked you to imagine the precious water used for tea, then you’d probably think of flowing streams, glistening waterfalls or deep blue lakes.
I am sorry to break it to you, but unfortunately one of the most important ingredients for tea - which is water! - is scarce, mismanaged and, when contaminated, can even be deadly.
So today we will look at water issues in three case studies…
- First Nations communities in my home, Canada
- Water usage rights and governance between countries (the USA and Mexico)
- The water poisoning crisis in the City of Flint, Michigan
My goal for this is that the next time you brew your tea, instead of just considering where your tea leaves come from, you will also think about where your tea water comes from.
If we care about fairtrade and ethically sourced tea, then we can surely care about our tea-brewing water right?
I don’t mean for the case studies below to scare you, but rather to spark discussion about different water crises currently happening across North America.
So, brew your favourite tea, preferably by Matcha Alternatives!, and dive in.
Water Resources & Climate Change: Joined at the Hip
But first: what do water and climate change have to do with each other? Why care?
You see, tea and mindfulness go hand-in-hand, and it's important to be mindful of all aspects of tea, including the water we use to brew it. Living in wealthier countries, we tend to take water for granted and assume that water supply and quality is a problem for somewhere else, but I’d like to help show that our water sources are actually in a bit of trouble and deserve some love and attention.
We also like to think that national-scale mismanagement of water and environmental resources is either not happening (because, surely someone would have fixed it by now?!) or is being noticed and addressed.
However, as with climate change, disorganisation and willful blindness, coupled with climate change and destabilisation, mixed with politics and a dash of corruption, results in a fantastic recipe for both social and environmental disaster. Within this, the water cycle is essential as we think about impacts on a global scale, such as climate change.
This graphic is a super helpful explanation of how water resources and climate change are inextricably linked, a good image to reference for the future! All our systems are inconnected, so when we use too much water (irrigating a desert, say) or destroy catchments through dams and deforestation, it can cause a snowball effect, increasing climate destabilisation.
Source: The Climate Reality Project 2016
Indigenous Water Quality Issues in Labrador and Newfoundland, Canada
In 2007 the United Nations created a Declaration of Rights on Indigenous People (UNDRIP) to help secure a life of health and dignity for these groups globally. Of the 144 countries in the General Assembly, only four countries refused to sign the declaration which were: Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States (Department of Economic). Shocking? Not really. Disappointing? YES.
The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the General Assembly on 13 September 2007 (Source: UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs).
Luckily though, all four of these countries eventually did sign the declaration, with Canada joining in 2016. Since then, the True North has passed legislation to start creating a framework for indigenous populations and the government to work together for decision-making and providing the basics of life.
Although this is a step in the right direction, we must remember that for centuries the Indigenous People have been denied their rights, and they have faced cultural genocide. To think that the government delayed adapting UNDRIP, a tool that could begin scratching the surface of fixing things with these communities, is unacceptable.
Anyways, I digress. The issue is that there is literally centuries worth of problems to be addressed, and any delay can be dangerous.
A study in one of the most Northern and remote parts of Canada, such as Labrador, shows that the major issues that the Indigenous community in Black Tickle face such as men’s health, mental health and poverty all stem from…yes you guessed it, the water situation!
Although this study was done in 2014, just two years before Canada signed the UNDRIP, it shows that the situation is grim (Hanrahan, Hudson & Sarkar 2014).
The community does not have any access to running tap water and the community relied entirely on underfunded potable drinking water units, and unmonitored communal wells.
The study had three major takeaways:
- Some water samples had contamination
- The community has had waterborne illnesses in the past
- Research concluded that the water security is “severely compromised” and does not meet the WHO’s standards of safe drinking water!
Many mothers in First Nations communities across Canada must take extra steps to sanitize to assure that babies are not exposed to contaminants. (Canada Blind Eye to First Nation Water Crisis, 2019)
As a Canadian myself, these factors are saddening and embarrassing. For a country that has abundant water and wealth, and prides itself in a strong social system, neglecting any community, especially ones facing generational trauma, is unjust. Sadly, the water crisis is prevalent across many Indigenous communities across the country!
Why don't these indigenous communities pack up and go where there is safer and readily available drinking water?
The answer is simple - it's their connection to the land (United Nations Permanent Forum on Indiginous Issues). For them, the land is not simply a place to live and extract resources from, but rather it connects them to their teachings, ancestors, spirituality and is part of their way of life.
Speaking of which, Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), which is the way Indiginous people have managed natural resources for millenia, actually preserves biodiversity, and reduces climate change (Berkes, Folk and Gadgill 1994).
These practices come from a place of respect for natural heritage, and is at the core of what keeps them connected to their lands.
The role of water security on a community as a whole is interesting. It’s not just a science or environmental issue, but rather a humanity and justice issue. So if you are reading this and enjoy tea without having to think about what’s in your water, I urge you to educate yourself for those who do not have the luxury. There are no high horses here either, I am learning all the time too! There is a high chance that issues related to water security, especially in G7 countries, in the 21st century might be hiding in your areas too.
We can start conversations about these over tea, so that every human can have access to basic rights and won’t have to pick between their cultural heritage or survival. Also keep a heads up for future studies like these to hopefully see improvement!
The steady growth of California's population over the last 120 years. Source: Public Policy Institute of California
California Dreams: Water Politics & the Colorado River
While we enjoy our tea (and spilling some) through this post, let’s take a sip of water politics right here! Delicious right?!
The Colorado River is shared between Arizona, California and Mexico and is under threat due to human activity and population growth. In fact the population of California has increased since the 20th Century! Alas the California dream...
The Colorado River is regulated under many federal laws, court decisions, contracts, regulations and guidelines called “The Law of the River” (Bureau of Reclamation). These allow certain areas to be damned, and certain states to have access to any water surplus.
The Colorado River Basin. Source: https://serc.carleton.edu/trex/students/labs/lab4_3.html
The river eventually flows into Mexico where it serves for agricultural purposes, and also feeds groundwater systems. Talks and legislation on managing the river have been ongoing since the 1900s.
Mexico was given rights to surplus water, which sounds beautiful on paper, but the country does not really benefit from this, because by the time it reaches Mexico, there is barely any water left. This was the case when the U.S constructed the Glen Canyon Dam.
Not only was there not enough water, but water quality had also been an issue because at one point the water reaching Mexico was very saline and unfit to use (MIT Mission 2012, Clean Water).
How the water from the Colorado River is divvied up. Source: http://web.mit.edu/12.000/www/m2012/finalwebsite/problem/coloradoriver.shtml
Most of the water usage in California is from residential and agricultural use. According to studies, Cali is facing warmer and dryer years more frequently- which affects water availability (Gleick & Mann, 2015). Forest fires, smog and droughts are all showing up more frequently, which would only cause more polluted and dried up rivers for the neighbours down South.
The two countries discuss the water crisis regularly, but I wonder if they are actually addressing the key issue of water scarcity? Should water-heavy industries such as agriculture be promoted in drought-prone areas like California?
I also wonder how things would be different if community members, scientists, and local TEK had more of a say (or at least an equal say!) than only those driving the economies of the countries.
Most importantly, is the Golden State going brown, and how would this affect Mexico in the long run?
The Flint, Michigan Water Crisis
Warning: This last case study is a bit of a longer read, so it's a good time to refill your mug of MA tea now. ;-)
We got 99 problems, but waterborne illnesses ain't one. Right? At least it's true in the 21st century U.S? Sorry to break it to you, but there has been a very recent water crisis in the City of Flint in Michigan state that is both scary and sad at the same time. I’m sure you’ve seen it in the headlines, but not everyone has heard the only sorry story. So here goes:
Before we dive into the Flint water crisis, it's important to take a quick look at the background.
The city of Flint is the birthplace of GM Motors and was a thriving urban centre with a population of 200,000 people in the early 1900s. However, by the 1980s gas prices increased and so did competition in the motor industry, meaning trouble for GM Motors as the industry crashed (Josh Hakala, 2016). This left a lot of people unemployed, and many were forced to leave Flint or barely make a living, hovering at the poverty line. Another important fact is the city demographics - 54% of the population identifies as Black American (Census 2019).
So now at the dawn of a new millennium as the world was growing and thriving, Flint was shriveling away. High unemployment and poverty rates, along with many people fleeing the city, meant that many houses were abandoned - it was becoming a ghost town. Not surprisingly, this also meant that the city became more and more neglected and in debt.
Okay, a quick summary:
- A city where the majority of the population is Black
- Increasing numbers of abandoned homes
- High unemployment rates
- High levels of debt
- Dangerously heavy reliance on GM for jobs
Could it be a combination of systematic racism, a non-diversified economy and poor planning that made things go downhill from here?
In 2011, Flint had a $25million deficit and was handed over to State control. An emergency manager was appointed to get the city back on track again, and that’s when things actually got even worse. In 2013, to cut costs, the city switched its water source from the Detroit Water System which pumps water from Lake Huron, to the Flint System. This river was a site of waste disposal for auto companies and surrounding municipalities - the long way of saying it was highly contaminated. Not just that, but the pipelines delivering this contaminated water were old and corrosive - and leaching lead straight into the water (Kennedy, 2016).
Within months of this new water system, Flint residents started noticing issues with their water. It had a foul smell and colour to it, and many people reported skin rashes and itchiness. Despite this, the officials failed to address or even admit that there was a problem.
It wasn’t until 2015 that Virginia Tech did an independent study and found that the city had unacceptably high levels of lead in its drinking water, indicating a ‘serious problem’. Michigan state’s chief medical executive of the time said that all children under the age of six should be treated as if they’ve been exposed to lead (Tanner 2016). This is because any exposure to the toxic substance is too much - especially for children with developing brains as it causes neurological damage (Hou, Yuav, Jin et al).
A baby gets tested for lead poisoning. (Denchak 2018)
87 people got sick and 15 died from Legionnaires Disease in Flint since the switch to the new water system. Legionnaires is an extreme case of pneumonia caused by a nasty bacteria that thrives in freshwater environments; this was the 3rd largest Legionnaires outbreak in U.S history (Denchak, 2018).
But there was still worse to come: As the lead contamination and untreated water issues started making national headlines, officials began to over-compensate - adding too much chlorine to the water.
So now there was bacterial infection from the river water, lead poisoning from the old pipelines and higher TTHM levels (cancer-causing-chemicals) thanks to too much chlorine. A classic, tragic case of quick-fix Band-Aid solutions without addressing the root cause of the problems.
After activist groups, researchers and even President Obama addressed the issue, in October 2015 the city switched back to getting its water from Lake Huron.
But the fight for justice was still raging. Flint residents went to court asking for clean and safe drinking water at home, instead of having to go to water distribution centres - especially challenging for the elderly or those with disabilities.
Luckily, they were heard as the Federal judge announced distribution of bottled water to each home, water filters and testing kits be provided to the residents. Imagine, this was happening in the modern day US!
Water protests. Source: Kennedy 2016
The City and the State negotiated with these orders, and came up with an alternative, and an enforceable agreement. The State of Michigan had to give the City of Flint $97 million to find and remove corrosive pipelines by 2020, while also installing water filters and testing tap waters for safety.
Millions of dollars in settlement are owed and being distributed to Flint residents who filed claims. The pipelines that were supposed to be replaced by 2019 are delayed and still a work in progress as of writing this in 2021 (Tuser, 2021). Also, 15 people are facing criminal charges for neglect in the Flint Water Crisis. This is a true story of a city in the modern day US, and it's so deeply disturbing that stories like this are still happening.
Conclusion: What Can We Do About Our Tea Water?
Tea is a beautiful beverage, but we must remember that we can’t take its main ingredient - clean water - for granted.
Safe, fresh water is a precious, scarce and sometimes unobtainable resource. Even in North America, safe and sufficient water is not always guaranteed, from Canada to Mexico it remains an issue.
It is therefore our responsibility as mindful, tea-drinking citizens of the world to do what we can to help aid this problem. Here’s what you can do:
Know Your Water Source
Knowing where our water comes from is an important first step. Government and environmental agencies devote significant resources in collecting water data in your area - you just have to actively seek it out.
Luckily seeking such wisdom does not require meditating under a bucolic tree, but rather a quick Google search to find water quality reports for your municipality.
Also, next time you see campaigns for boosting rights of marginalized communities, at least consider signing and distributing these petitions. Making noise is one of the best ways to shine light on bad practices.
Get Active with Water Conservation
We can also go back to basics water conservation practices that we learnt in elementary school:
- Plant native and/or drought-resistant gardens that require less watering
- Save water while doing dishes by using a tub or the Eco setting on your dishwasher
- Take shorter showers
- Learn more about your water footprint and see if you can reduce it
- Read about how TEK (Traditional Ecological Knowledge) works in terms of water conservation, and see what aspects you can incorporate into your life
- Learn where your tap water comes from, and appreciate the miracle of clean, safe drinking water!
- Collecting rainwater? Yes please! This is fantastic way to irrigate your garden without using drinking water on your plants
- Have a family meeting and discuss actions you can take right now to conserve water. While you’re at it, you can talk about how to lower your impact on climate change too - learn how here
- Check the water footprint of the foods and drinks you consume
- Knowledge is power! (Of course, getting educated + drinking tea = a superpower) So keep learning resources and issues, both in your community and globally
Somehow as we grew up, we outgrew these water-saving tips, but now it's high time that we remember that deep connection between water security and climate change, like with the Colorado River; justice, like with the First Nation peoples; and basic health, as in Flint.
Get Active with Activism
Even more important is the idea of fairness and equality in the environmental realm and asking questions regularly. How hard are our governments actually working in reconciling with First Nations groups? Would the Colorado River be better managed if the US was losing as much water as Mexico? Would things in Flint have been different, had it been a predominantly Caucasian or a richer city? Would the issue even be addressed if local activist groups hadn’t raised concerns or refused to back down?
One core theme across all these case studies is that instead of immediately addressing the root issues, first responses were superficial solutions that didn’t end up solving anything. Extra reason to continue paying attention, rather than taking answers at face value.
The fact that you took time to read this far makes it clear that you care, and I (and the whole MA team) genuinely appreciate that. It's clear that the tea we drink is made of history, chemistry and politics - from the tea leaf right to the water we brew it in.
How beautiful would it be if we could have more open conversations like these over tea! But for now, feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below, and let us know what tea you are sipping on while you ponder these watery vicissitudes.
About the Author: Tanisha Rajput from @Chai_Struck
She also developed a delicious chai recipe for us this winter using our Yerba Mate, which you can try here:
In honor of Chai Struck and the environmental theme of this post, we've chosen this bundle as our Tea of the Week: each bundle sold plants one tree, more than offsetting its carbon footprint! That tastes good...
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All of the information regarding the herbs, botanicals, minerals, vitamins, etc., is information drawn from traditional use data or academic research and should be regarded as such. If you, the reader, has a health or medical concern, please consult your healthcare professional. The information found here is not meant to diagnose, treat, prescribe or cure and has not been evaluated by the FDA. This information is for educational purposes only.
References & Further Reading
Canada Blind Eye to First Nation Water Crisis, 2019 https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/10/02/canada-blind-eye-first-nation-water-crisis
NDRC Flint Water Crisis https://www.nrdc.org/flint
Michigan Department of Health and Human Service https://www.michigan.gov/documents/deq/Flint_Blood_Testing_Report_December_23_509464_7.pdf
Lead side effects https://tbiomed.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1742-4682-10-13
Bureau of Reclamation https://www.usbr.gov/lc/region/g1000/lawofrvr.html
Gleick & Mann, 2015 https://www.pnas.org/content/112/13/3858
Hou, S., Yuan, L., Jin, P. et al. A clinical study of the effects of lead poisoning on the intelligence and neurobehavioral abilities of children. Theor Biol Med Model 10, 13 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1186/1742-4682-10-13
MIT Mission 2012, Clean Water, http://web.mit.edu/12.000/www/m2012/finalwebsite/problem/coloradoriver.shtml
Public Policy Institute of California https://www.ppic.org/publication/californias-population/
TEK: Berkes F., Folke C., Gadgil M. (1994) Traditional Ecological Knowledge, Biodiversity, Resilience and Sustainability. In: Perrings C.A., Mäler KG., Folke C., Holling C.S., Jansson BO. (eds) Biodiversity Conservation. Ecology, Economy & Environment, vol 4. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-011-1006-8_15
The Climate Reality Project https://www.climaterealityproject.org/blog/climate-change-impacting-water-cycle
United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affair https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/declaration-on-the-rights-of-indigenous-peoples.html
United Nations Permanent Forum on Indiginous Issues https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/wp-content/uploads/sites/19/2018/04/Indigenous-Peoples-Collective-Rights-to-Lands-Territories-Resources.pdf