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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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WaterAid is a very good charity to which I would heartily suggest that people donate. I also agree that it would be good if more people gave regularly to charity. However, I don't think it holds up to criticise the Ice Bucket Challenge as a one-off either because it wastes water or because it's a stunt (as many memes doing the rounds have been). What I think it does do is potentially flaunt the localised surplus of water in the face of people who do not have ready access (which doesn't mean that if it wasn't used, people in poorly supplied areas would miraculously have it, merely that it could be extremely tasteless to do so). It also pays for everyone to consider the privileges that they enjoy as a result of the luck of where they were born and to decide to support charities and other initiatives that extend those advantages worldwide.

Reasoning:

  1. Although it's high-profile and ostentatious, very little water is "wasted" in this context; most people will use more water warming up after their ice bucket in the shower than they did in the actual bucket (let alone in our swimming pools, aesthetic water fountains etc. etc.).
  2. The fact that I have ready supply to water does not mean that someone else does not have it; the great work that WaterAid does is to improve the supply of water to areas that are in drought or otherwise poorly supplied (in this case, at the moment it's a nonrivalrous commodity limited by geographical availability [i.e. in my area, as opposed to globally, there is no competition for water], not by overall scarcity). However, it's not as though they'd take the water that I didn't use and specifically use that in the areas that they are serving. When people tip water from the tap over their head and back into the ground in most areas of the UK, US or Europe, it's not as though that water is gone forever in usable form; it will simply be re-ingested into the water cycle. Although water is a finite resource, it is renewable and is not "used up" in the same way as burning coal uses it up (and takes millions of years to re-appear in usable form). Using excess water in areas where there is a plentiful supply does not deprive others of water; it is the global system that does not seem to think that access to water should be a human right that does that. If you want decent water to be supplied worldwide, then support organisations that do that; don't think that by not wasting water it will appear where it's needed, which is what this critique seems to imply.
  3. Only 18% of the UK population regularly donate to charity (source: UK Giving report 2012-2013; 57% total reported donating, while 31% was by Direct Debit (p. 7)) -- one-off stunts with a fun element (not really any different to a water fight) substantially increase the amount given.

So, in other words: the problem with the Ice Bucket challenge is that it gratuitously shows the sickening inequality of access to water in the service of an unrelated challenge. This does not mean that it has not done good things for ALS charities. However, it would be good if this phenomenon could also be used to raise awareness of the problems of access to drinking water. In other words, this is more about the discourse of appropriation and privilege (and lack of awareness) than any kind of true environmental or humanitarian problem with people in areas of plentiful supply "wasting" water. This is not the same, though, as conserving water and thinking that by so doing, in areas of plentiful supply, the problem will be solved. That will take action. So, if you feel put out by the ice bucket challenge, the solution, to my mind, is not to ask people to stop doing it and "just give to charity" (they won't and there's no real environmental or humanitarian problem with them doing so). Rather, you need to encourage them to also give to charities and organisations that work to make water available worldwide.