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Water, Water, Everywhere?

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Last year, I was sitting in my aunt's kitchen as she presided over dinner with her four small children. Her youngest son was the only one not to finish his macaroni and cheese, happily distracted by a favorite toy. His mother reached over, took the offending tank engine from his hand, and gestured to his plate.

"Finish your dinner. There are kids starving in Africa."

The phrase is a family favorite -- a perfect balance of Midwestern over-simplification and Catholic guilt. My cousin choked down the last of his meal; the family slowly dispersed, and I was left staring at a table of empty plates. Then it struck me: The glasses were still full. All of them.

For generations, the women of my family had (at times forcefully) insisted that we finish our meals, only to dump our leftover water down the sink. In our homes, wastefulness was akin to theft or treason but we just didn't think about water.

Americans use more than 100 gallons of water a day, not including the water used to produce our food, fuel, and clothes. We don't have to purify it; we don't have to collect it; most of the time, we don't even have to worry about it being turned off or taken away.

We would rightly consider this abundance a blessing; after all, it has provided an unprecedented opportunity for development. More often than not, however, easy water does not make us more conscious of our prosperity, but only less aware of how difficult life would be without it.

As a human rights advocate, I believe this lack of awareness poses a serious problem. There are nearly a billion people living without clean water worldwide -- roughly one in eight of us. Every year waterborne disease claims millions of lives, fuels gender inequality, and impedes health, education, and economic growth. It's a crisis that's infinitely solvable. (Europe spends more on ice cream in a year than most estimate it would take to universalize water access.) But if Americans fail to appreciate water's importance in our own lives, how can we effectively confront water poverty in the lives of others?

To put it another way, when we disregard water's importance, we fail to see water poverty for what it really is: a human rights issue. We often consider water poverty an economic problem or a charitable cause instead of an injustice. By doing so we fail to understand that when it comes to water, both the "haves" and the "have-nots" are equal right holders. We fail to empathize.

Empathy is essential. It animates activism, mobilizes support, and creates a willingness to change our own behavior. It also reveals our human interconnectedness. So how do we cultivate empathy around water? It's a question I've been considering, and here's what I've come up with so far:

First, we have to become more aware of the water around us. We can start by asking questions like, "How much water am I using? Where does it come from? How difficult would my daily life become without water?"

Next, we should attempt to understand the challenges faced by those living in water poverty. The Internet is home to countless stories, pictures, and videos that can help. Experience is an even more powerful teacher. Some friends and I recently limited ourselves to just four liters of water a day. We used our four liters for everything: for drinking, cooking, and bathing. What an incredible week.

Finally, some of us may choose to confront water poverty firsthand. If this is something you decide to do, you won't have far to go.

For the past year I've driven from LA to a small town on the Country's largest American Indian reservation in New Mexico. Smith Lake lies just off of I-40 near Gallup, and many of its Navajo residents have no access to clean water.

For generations, families in Smith Lake have collected water from nearby livestock ponds and tap stands, storing it in buckets on their porches. Women haul water, often to a small dwelling with no electricity, and boil it before washing or cooking. They have no toilets. While efforts have begun to truck clean water to remote homes, larger infrastructural improvements are slow in coming.

For many, daily life seems more like South Sudan than the American Southwest. But Smith Lake is far from an anomaly. According to a report published in 2008, 13 percent of American Indians lack access to clean water and/or wastewater disposal. In non-native households, this number is closer to .6 percent.

March 22 is World Water Day, the day many of us champion ongoing efforts to end the water crisis. But if we're going to win -- in Smith Lake or South Sudan -- we must first take the time to understand the importance of water in our own lives and the challenge of water poverty in our own country. We can start at the dinner table.