Water Society: future fiction

Linda Paxling and I wrote this speculative futures short story when we attended “Messy matters” at Blekinge Institute of Technology in 2016. The task was to take an environmental development and stay with the trouble, imagining both (in)evitable (un)editable futures. I think it is quite a fun task and I really suggest taking an environmental problem and a pen and imagining all the directions it can take.

Story time on the first day of preschool 2067

Dear children. Before we start please take a moment to think about yesterday. Think about when you came home and sat down to have your dinner hot off the 3D printer and drank your cold, pure water fresh from your in-home water distillery system. Think about taking your infinity shower with crystal clear recycled dish water. Think about when you brushed your teeth and the continuous, luxurious water stream. Feel how nourished and soft your skin feels in our moisture suits. Water feels so abundant today. It also felt like this 50 years ago in 2017, but the years between water was a scarce resource. 

Long ago in 2018 the first drought hit Öland. It barely rained for 2 years. Wells that had supplied families for generations sunk lower and lower and eventually ran dry. The island’s municipality was forced to shut off water mains, and drinking water had to be imported from the mainland. Blekinge and Skåne followed in 2019. There it was even more severe as Denmark – as the rest of Europe – was also suffering from lack of water and so water negotiations began, diplomacy became strained. Norway’s department of water tried to keep us supplied for as long as they could, but eventually even they ran up against water shortages. Soon the whole of Scandinavia was in water crisis mode. 

The rest of the world was already further down this path. The rain stopped and the water that was left was fiercely contested. Millions were displaced, forced to travel to find enough drinking water. It was publicly discovered that some multinational corporation had purchased the right to various reservoirs and tried to protect these with force. The legalities were fraught. Children, just like you, were not guaranteed access to clean drinking water.

In Africa, already conflict riddled, wars broke out and water supplies became less and less secure. Huge water refugee camps were built around remaining wells, and the communities that established around these supplies regulated use severely, rationing got as strict as 250ml per person per day. For those with moisture suits this was enough for survival. 

Because of overwhelming demand, moisture suits were released to the market before prototyping was finished. Earlier versions started to lose effectiveness after less than 1 year. Luckily innovations from Swedish manufacturer, Devan, succeeded in making a suit that came with a 10-year guarantee. Many of your suits are probably Devan, although not the original design. Along with sister manufacturers in New Zealand, Vietnam and Mongolia, Devan made enough moisture suites for everyone.

Aside from the moisture suits we had many other water saving devices. You probably know them from your own homes. In the beginning, there were slow-flow shower heads, low water washing-machines, super-efficient dish-washers. Soon however it became clear that these niceties were no longer viable and there was more and more emphasis on ensuring crop survival and drinking water for all. We all had to stop using water for cleanliness, so that everyone could have enough food to eat and water to drink.

In Sweden, we never went without drinking water for more than 24 hours, but like everywhere else we stopped using water for washing in the early 2020s. We had reusable bacteria cloths to wipe ourselves twice a week, this ensured healthy populations on our skins, and kept potentially dangerous bacteria at bay. The municipality acted quickly and replaced water based toilets with self-composting ones in 2020-2021, this also helped our local farmers who were still struggling to produce crops. As my sister and I were still young, our family was eligible for state help, and we were provided the alternative toilet, wipes and other water replacements. We started using a 24/7 dust sucker to keep the dust from our house. Our snot was still always black from the dust.

Mobile desalination plans were built by every coastal country who could afford them. This was used predominantly for basic food crops: genetically modified versions of amaranth, potatoes, cactus and peas were possible to grow in drought conditions. Waters retreat was relentless however and even the oceans ran dry.  This caught the scientific community by surprise, it was first predicted that sea levels would rise, but water was literally evaporating into space. Farmers had to move their crop lands nearly every season in order to stay close enough to the increasingly salty water supply. The planet was rapidly drying. I remember all the grown-ups being so worried. We could hear mum and dad’s strained voices talking about how to keep our Swedish cactus crop alive late into the night.

Our father used to take the train to Småland every Saturday to buy drinking-water for the family. We could have purchased it here, but a family friend still had access to a deep well there, and the quality was better if we went to pick it up. It was also much cheaper. We knew some families who were spending more than a third of their salaries on drinking water.

The personal moisture suits started becoming popular here around then. We were used to seeing people on TV wearing them, so it wasn’t so strange when the Perssons got them for their whole family. They had four children so water was just too expensive, and the suits were the best way to keep the children hydrated. Soon even our parents made us wear them. We were less thirsty when wearing them so we didn’t put up too much of a fight. My sister got green and I got yellow. Not having to stay close to home and emergency drinking water, we felt we could do anything, go anywhere in our suits. It was a liberating feeling.

Eventually, even the wells up in Småland became drier. Every drop was precious and families were using the minimal amount of water for basic hydration. Still rain hadn’t arrived.

I remember reading in the newspaper about the three countries left in the world with a deep fresh secure water supply: Tuvalu, Canada and Greenland. These countries had been receiving requests to access their water from the rest of the world since the late 2010s. They were promised all sorts of treasures and power in order for other countries to use their water. The also received some strong political pressure, but thankfully this never led to open conflict. The military were too afraid of contaminating dwindling supplies.

Tuvalu, Canada and Greenland had been quite marginalized from decision making up until that point. Having other countries depending on them for access to their water and asking for their input was a very strange experience. Their political response was slow, trepidatious, they were well aware of the faults of power inequalities and wanted to engage in a meaningful, long sighted way. Rain patterns were still unstable, there had been no properly drenching rain for nearly two decades. Ground water levels were at crisis point, moisture suits or not, there was little hope for us earth creatures if drinking water was not shared. This was nearly the only thing my sister and I read about during this period. We even started staying up late like our parents and discussing different responses, different strategies. All our friends also became obsessed with water politics. We were so worried our city would evaporate into dust.

One auspiciously cloudy day in 2029, after what seemed like eternal deliberation, Tuvalu, Canada and Greenland came together. From what we read in the media, they had all been present at preceding decision making summits where their voices had been continually ignored. Tuvalu had even signed an agreement that would see their country go under water during the now abandoned Conference of the Parties discussions, in order to have at least some global agreement – to no avail. Nothing they had done before water became powerfully scarce had led to any progress. Countries with power abused their privilege again and again. In the name of ‘same but differentiated responsibility’ industrialised nations had continually dodged making any binding compromises to limit climate change. Instead growth narratives had continuously fueled their competition with each other, consolidating more and more power. By the 2020s, hyper-capitalist countries finally came to realize that sustainability, not growth, was the key to support their peoples. This historical finger burning made Tuvalu, Canada and Greenland extremely cautious. They wanted lasting and equitable decisions.

Now at the center of decision making, the three countries brought their understanding of marginalization to the global political process. To avoid future possibilities for power concentrations they agreed to ensure the future equitable distribution of water depended on truly egalitarian process. The outcome of the meeting between them was to implement a global decision-making system that would ensure a deeply fair world.

This lofty goal was soon populated with input from all the individuals in the world. In a herstoric win for participatory democracy everyone had their say via the Water Saving App. I remember that weekend in February 2031. My sister had just turned 18 and was able to vote. Our family had been discussing this for the best part of six months and when the app opened we were ready with our ideas. I particularly wanted having time to think about politics as part of the new decision making. My sister thought it was important to be able to see everyone else who was involved.

Finally, in September 2031 from the input of all global citizens, we came up with five principles to be applied when decisions needed making:

  1. Equality: All voices shall be included; each voice has equal worth. 
  2. Scale: All decisions should have local relevance, and contribute to positive global development.
  3. Transparency:  At all stages of decision making, all actors and potential interests shall be declared. 
  4. Response-ability – all shall have equal opportunity to respond, and equal responsibility for decisions. 
  5. Context: Care and consideration will be given to existing system to aim for continual improvement.
  6. Quality of life: All global citizens have the right to enough free time to ensure considered involvement with international decision making.

In 2032 – the moment these principles were ratified by not only every country but every person – Tuvalu, Greenland and Canada simultaneously turned on the water to the global supply system. We watched the ribbon cutting ceremony right here in this school room. I think nearly everyone on the planet watched our screens that night. I remember turning on our vacuum pressure tap. It was wondrous to watch clean, drinking water flowing out. It tasted so good. For the first time since I could remember I drank until I was completely drenched.

The water distribution infrastructure was made possible through open collaborative design and utilized information and communication from many different sources in order to predict where water would be needed. Internal communication processes use weather forecasts, temperature scanning and population movements to instantly deliver water where and when it is needed. Functioning alongside, still disparate, yet more frequent rain patterns, the global water distribution system became a much-needed backup for the local innovations, like the infinity showers and pure drinking fountains that we now take for granted in our homes. Infrastructures become sustainable and now enable high quality of living. No-one ever has to wonder where their next drink is coming from.

In 2067 water remains a scarce resource, the threat of water limiting has been motivating enough to keep our six decision making principles front and center of all global processes. As we went through the 2030s and the 2040s there were more and more of us who had grown up with these principles – we did not remember the previous political system. These considerations form a deep part of life, underpinning every thought. Considering the well-being of all is inherent in everything we do.

If we think about decision making before the global water shortage, the global governance system we have now may be called radical. It is transparent, and serves the long-term interest of every person, rather than the short-term interest of select few. What we see as normal now, the people alive before 2017 may have described us as inter-dependent collaborative global community, maybe that is what we are. I think it is normal, of course we should all live together with the best conditions for everyone. Now you guys are heading into the first year of your education. It’s important to know where our society came from, and what we all went through to get here. Enjoy your time at school and take care of the water.

Thanks to the course conveners

Pirjo Elovaara, Blekinge Insitute of Technology, Sweden

Kristina Lindström, Malmö University, Sweden

Christina Mörtberg, Linnaeus University, Sweden

Åsa Ståhl, Linnaeus University, Sweden

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