In May this year, Shelot Masithi was invited to give one of the two keynote speeches at the virtual conference organised jointly by Climate Psychology Alliance and the Association for Psychosocial Studies. Her title was 'Climate Change and Thirst’.
Climate Change and Thirst
When I was growing up, I had the privilege of playing in the mountains and rivers and waterfalls. In different villages, growing up, I witnessed nature in its glorious form.
One of these villages is where my great-grandmother and my grandmother lived. It had the most beautiful stream carrying water from the mountain to the village and farms, turning into one of the main rivers in my home region. That is where I learned to swim. It is so sad that when I go back to this village today, my heart breaks to see that river barely flowing.
Five years ago, it dried up completely and although the rains helped it back a little, it's still barely flowing.
Experiencing water scarcity as a schoolgirl
Where I lived next, in my mid childhood, it is quite dry, just a rural village, no local industry. Back then from 2012 until 2017, we experienced severe water shortages that continue today. I was always worried about water, whenever I left my house to go to school and return: what if tomorrow, there won't be water, do we have enough buckets to store water for ourselves when it runs out? In 2016 we experienced a water shortage for a month. The buckets that we had were not enough and ran out mid-month and the month dragged. We did not have enough money to buy water from those who had spare.
I remember one day, when in the morning I was ready for school, I stood in the middle of my room and wondered if I should take a bucket so that, on the way home, I could fetch water either from school or from the river. But I also thought if I take a bucket to school for fetching water on my way home, the other kids might bully me. I didn't think for a moment that they could also be experiencing the fear and anxiety of not having water. I didn't take the bucket. I just dumped out of my room and went to school. It was one of the most frustrating months in my grade school years. I couldn't even study properly because I was constantly thinking about water. And I hardly even knew about what other villages or other countries were going through when it comes to water and climate change.
Realising the link with climate change
One day it happened that our geography teacher was teaching about climate change. However, I still didn't think that our water scarcity was due to climate change because he spoke of it as a crisis that's going to happen in the far distant future. But I started reading about it. As I read on, I realized that climate change is a real issue, but I was thinking about it happening in other places. I overlooked what was going on in my community.
In my village, as we continued to experience water shortages, my local chief called a community meeting. It was June 2017. The idea was to source water from the mountain to provide running water to every house. That became a reality. We didn't have to worry about water again until October 2020. Then people started realizing that there's no longer enough water in the mountains because it doesn't rain enough in the rainy seasons and because the village is expanding.
Now, because I have seen this in my community, and because I understand the links of climate change and water scarcity or drought, I also understand the need for psychosocial intervention. People had come together to solve one problem with a common goal. Like everywhere in the world, they needed access to water, for drinking, cooking, washing and growing crops. It is this unity that is needed. I realized that we have separated off climate change and issues like water scarcity as scientific problems and we ignore the social and psychological effects.
I had learned about Ubuntu. Ubuntu means "I am because we are"; it teaches that humanity is inextricably bound up with others; it emphasises community. And when I look at climate change and water scarcity, I think we need to look at this as the problem of the collective. When we come together, we form a collective hub that provides different knowledges, skills and expertise, as well as support. Water is a collective problem; climate change is a collective problem. When we try to solve them individually, we burn out easily. We need also to pay attention to the mental health, the psychological effects, of this problem that affects not only individuals but also the collective.
To solve these problems across a huge range of diverse communities is complex and cannot be achieved individually. So, when we try to separate ourselves from the community, pursue our own advantage, the problem remains. What is it that makes us so scared to build an inclusive community with no colour, conducive for every perspective?
I understand that most of you do not know what it feels like to be thirsty. I read that 75% of consumers in Europe pre-rinse their dishes! I also learned from the IPCC report of projections that about 700 million people in Africa could be displaced due to drought. What does that tell us? Must we continue to act individualistically?
Since COP26, our leaders are nowhere to be found with all the promises they made.
What do we do with this information? What have we really learned If we're still doing things individually? Let us question ourselves and our ways of doing things. Let us change our focus from the individualistic and explore the collective. What can it give us? Where can it take us?
Climate activist Shelot Masithi is a CPA member and the Founder of She4Earth, a youth-led non-profit organisation educating children and young people about climate change, biodiversity conservation, and indigenous knowledge systems. Among her work are conservation, adaptation, and awareness with science experts, psychologists, and indigenous leaders. She’s also Algalita’s Stay Stoked 2021 awardee.