When Shelot Masithi, a Psychology student at the University of Limpopo in South Africa, contacted CPA, she had an interest in climate psychology’s approach to water scarcity. Kate Evans was struck by what Shelot called the ‘daunting question’ posed on the CPA discussion forum: “What will be the state of health psychology in a society with a deepening climate change, food shortage, and degrading land?”
This is a central question for a Climate Psychology that is global, and not just Western, in its orientation, one that is committed to building in social and racial justice. Wendy Hollway convened a discussion with Shelot and Kate to explore this topic. The following is extracted from a much longer conversation. It gives a starkly clear account of the systemic nature of the water shortage in locations such as Shelot’s village, the interconnectedness of climate, history, racial injustice and political corruption acting on a basic necessity for life. At the end, Kate reflects on what she is learning.
SHELOT: I was reading earlier on about Dar es Salaam's water supply, that it was bought by some Western private profit-making company. I'm like, okay, the people in Tanzania are actually suffering, you know, due to water scarcity and all that. But then another company is saying that no, we make water or we produce water. But nobody produces water. I mean, nature does, we came here and we found water streams all over the earth.
WENDY: I think that’s a very important principle to start off with - what you've just said Shelot - that these companies are not producing water, even if they are making it available, water is the free bounty of planet Earth, pure water. It should never be monetised.
KATE: How is water organised, I mean, where you live, Shelot? When you ask the question, how does climate psychology meet water shortage? You don't have access to water? I mean, how is it organised?
SHELOT: I will put it in chain form, the relationship around water and people in our villages. First it's water, and then there are people, and there's food production. Because the people at the top, the government officials, we have the Department of Water Affairs, those are the people that are responsible for delivering water or for ensuring that people in their communities have access to safe, clean water for, you know, all the uses – domestic, farming.
I remember, during the last lockdown, there was, you know, an initiative implemented by the government that there should be water tanks installed in communities, like, here in my village, there should be a water tank. But then those tanks were just like, a tender given to someone who works at the government or whoever. And they installed water tanks in the streets, and then nothing ever happened, there was no water in the tanks.
And so still people were complaining about water access, there's a situation in some places where farmers, or maybe those farmers who have money, those who are producing food for the corporate companies or corporate retail stores, they actually, when it rains, instead of the water flowing down the rivers, those farmers actually divert the water to their own dams, they prevent the water from flowing to the rivers.
So that actually creates a sort of, you know, disillusion to the people, because it becomes a psychological water warfare in a way - that now people want access to water, you know, now the frustration is that farmers, because they are white, the people cannot protest because some way, somewhere in the government, or even if it's taken to the court, the white person is always gonna win because the white person has the money and then if they have the money, then it's like, you know, a war between the rich and the poor and now you, you know, you look at yourself and then you're like, okay, how is this going to actually be successful? Are we going to live like this always fighting for the resources that we are actually privileged to have as humanity, because water is a privilege to all of us, it shouldn't be a thing that people have conditional rights to water. Are we supposed to have unconditional rights to water, all of us clean water, pristine water. Because when you talk about the rights of water, we need to also speak about the rights for water. And most times we forget about the other part, the rights for water, we never talk about it.
WENDY: You're making very clear that the issue of water brings in the whole of social justice, which includes racial justice very strongly in South Africa for historical reasons. And, and then the power. It also includes capitalism, the power of commercial wealth to take a free resource to catch it and divert it off its stream so that the people lower down the river have no water source. It's like a vignette of injustice, isn't it, all in one example? Shelot, you express this critical worldview very clearly. Where do you find the political support? Or are you - you can't be a completely lone individual thinking this way, I presume?
SHELOT: To be honest, I wouldn't say that there is political support. I was also working with my sister, we decided to co create the World Water Law in South Africa. So it's, we know that it's a very dangerous thing. And we probably won't even have political support, because nobody wants to be told, especially the people who are actually making money out of the poor people, they don't want to be told that they have to do this, they have to adopt certain rules or laws to actually, that will actually benefit everyone, because they are actually promoting this toxic narcissistic capitalism, you know, they're actually pushing the agenda of individualism, there is no longer collectivism, if you look at everything that is happening around the world, it's like, everything is now 'I want to do this so that it works for me, and I benefit alone.'So there's really no political support for something that is actually fighting for the people.
WENDY: Tell us about what you and your sister have started, the World Water Law?
SHELOT: Yeah, we want to be studying it nationally, and we want to take that internationally. So that we can have, you know, maybe organisations come together and work together to actually adopt the laws. So we would like to see organisations and institutions, maybe also corporate industries, you know, working together to make sure that everybody in the world can have access to water. The last time I checked with the Institute for Economics and Peace, who’ve updated their statistics about people without water, in our time right now, we have about 2.5 billion people who are living without water or clean water or access to clean water. And then the number is gonna double or triple by 2050, which is, like, the worst number ever. And now, when that happens, now, it's like facing a water crisis, we're facing food shortage, and less food production. And on top of that, we're experiencing the worst thing ever, which is also displacement, which many people do not even talk about.
Because like, when you look at what's going on, those who talk about climate change never talk about environmental displacement, which is actually happening. For example in African countries we have a lot of people coming from say Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Namibia, who are coming here to have a better life.
KATE: Yes. Of all things when there's no water people are going to have to move. And this started ages ago. Environmental displacement is a better word than migration, isn't it.
This World Water Law, I'd love you to send around the material that you were talking about, Shelot.
WENDY: Yes. So tell us more, Shelot, about what you think of as the psychology of water shortage.
SHELOT: I think that, you know, as long as people continuously are faced with water shortages, and also this dry climate, and you know, now it becomes stressful, they become depressed over natural resources that they should be having access to, and now without that access they have a struggle within themselves. Where are we going to go? What are we going to eat? Where are we going to find the water? And then they also worry, a constant worry, about the future weather. Because now they're facing water crisis today. Are we still, are they still gonna suffer from that water scarcity crisis tomorrow? Or is it gonna be better tomorrow? Or what's in store for them, and for other people as well?
A related discussion on “Raw Experience” was initiated on the CPA Slack workspace by Ruth Jones and with Fatima Arkin, a journalist who contacted CPA. Kate commented “I realise that if I can see through my own distress and shame at the broken system, there is really important work of dignity in surviving and tackling the problem – at depth – and not with a tech fix.” She drew attention to Fatima’s explanation of what she was aiming for in contacting CPA:
how as a journalist I can provide climate-related content that presents a more empowered image of developing countries to developed countries. I personally feel that a lot of the climate-related content that dominates mainstream media portrays developing countries as weak, poor and in need of saving by "rich" developed countries who have the technological "answers" and money needed. While I don't dispute the historic responsibility of developed countries to help developing countries on the front lines of climate change, I'm also cognizant of the way the media is shaping how we view our own self-worth and the self-worth of others in the international climate space. I want to highlight the amazing things that developing countries have to offer so that we may foster a more collaborative approach to the complex climate crisis.
From mutual learning about grief, repair and reciprocity in the face of the broken system, Kate concludes that “my overwhelming feeling was to wonder how we convey that the rich developed country way of life comes at irretrievable cost”. The idea of ‘raw experience’, for Kate, helps to avoid bundling into the label of ‘trauma’ the kinds of experiences of water shortage that Shelot describes. It brings us back to the simple wonder and power of rivers and their rights. It reminded me (Wendy) of a comment by Vinay Gupta, “that collapse just means living in the same conditions as the people who grow your coffee. The privileged first-world bubble shatters, and you end up being dumped into the real world where everybody else lives.” That is a huge adjustment for the Modern Western psyche: climate psychology addresses this too, alongside the anxiety-provoking and life-threatening reality of water shortage and environmental displacement.
Wendy Hollway with Shelot Masithi and Kate Evans