Monday, November 26, 2012

Dig Well, Carry Water: Exercise as Survival Strategy

There are many reasons to exercise: cardiovascular health, pride in your personal appearance, treating depression, weight loss, endorphin highs, enjoyment, and more. Since I began studying the global water crisis, I can’t help but think that this looming catastrophe deserves a place on the list as well.

Though the causes and solutions are complex, the core problem is simple: our planet is running out of fresh water. Before explaining how this might relate to exercise, let me summarize the situation.

When I turn on the tap, clean water comes out. It’s straightforward. Dependable. In fact, this has never not happened for me, apart from the rare power outage-related event. No doubt the same is true for most of my readers. Yet depending on how humanity addresses the global water crisis in the next few years, potable water may become an increasingly precious resource in nearly every part of the globe. In 2010, water activist Maude Barlow stated, “By 2030, global demand for water will exceed supply by 40%—an astounding figure foretelling of terrible suffering.”1 She described the crisis as “the greatest ecological and human threat humanity has ever faced.”

Maude Barlow

Pollution, unsustainable groundwater withdrawals, and forest and wetland destruction have all contributed to the global water crisis.2 Preventing the further diminishing of our water supply is also a multifaceted issue, and an urgent one for everyone who relies on water—that is, the entire world.

But here I want to examine how the water crisis relates to physical fitness. As potable water decreases in availability, it will require more and more energy to obtain. In many parts of the world, people already have to go to extreme lengths to get water. Often, due to a lack of technology and infrastructure, these extreme lengths involve what more privileged people regard as exercise. 


I am not arguing that everyone needs to get in shape right now because our water supplies will undergo drastic change in the next few months. What I am suggesting is that exercise may prove to be a survival tactic in coming years. Chances are exceptionally small that any of us will go from getting water from the tap one day to hauling buckets of water over several miles the next. Yet considering all the other crises our planet could face—nuclear war, pandemics, rising sea levels, a global food shortage, natural disasters of enormous scope—water supply chains, among other things we rely on to survive, could change suddenly and rapidly.

In addition to securing water for yourself, in the event of such changes, perhaps you will need to provide for loved ones—elderly parents, young children, or family members with physical limitations. Or perhaps you are already in one of these categories and will need someone to provide for you. Do you have a caregiver who should be taking more steps to be physically fit? If so, what action is appropriate for you, the receiver of care, to take in order to make this happen? These are not easy questions.

Maude Barlow, a tireless advocate for water justice and activism, has said that “the hard work of those fighting environmental destruction and injustice must continue.”3 Whether or not you feel called to help prevent the global water crisis, it is worth asking yourself these questions:

  • Could I carry water over long distances? (Water weighs about eight and a third pounds per gallon. It’s heavy.)
  • Could I dig a well? 
  • Could I install and maintain rainwater collection and storage devices?
  • Could I chop or saw ice into blocks?
  • Could I carry blocks of ice over long distances?
  • Could I water fields of crops without machinery?

If your answers are no or maybe, then perhaps you’ve found some new motivation for getting in shape.

1. Maude Barlow, “Our Commons Future is Already Here,” On the Commons, Oct. 19, 2010, accessed Nov. 15, 2012,
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.

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