Raimi Olakunle Gbadamosi on the Protection of Tap Water

The Possibility of Imagining Something New

His political involvement is fervent, his artistic work constantly investigating social and cultural politics. So for C& British artist, lecturer and writer Raimi Olakunle Gbadamosi envisions a scenario for his adopted country South Africa, in which politicians and multi-corporates are held accountable for their actions whilst the general public might dare to dream of descent lives.

Atul Bhalla, Looking for lost water IV, 2018. 54 x 26 inches (1371.6 x 635 mm), archival Pigment print. Courtesy of the artist.

By Raimi Olakunle Gbadamosi
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The Society

We started The Society for the Protection of Tap Water in 2005 to protect tap water from bottled water. It became clear that tap water was endangered as people treated tap water like slow poison, while bottles, perceived as containing long life and prosperity, were taking its place. It was the successful sale of hyper-oxygenated water branded as a soft drink that tipped us over the edge. If this was accepted, then tap water was in jeopardy. Initially no one took us seriously – it was a joke only a fool would take seriously. When details were published, even some of our friends scoffed. The plastic bottle had been kind to us, it delivered a level of coolness to loitering, the ultimate minimal object that bordered on the invisible. Branded water was the prop we didn’t know we needed. It was the definitive innocent oral fixation. It was hard to fault anyone for drinking water.

Water now had a billable price: value. But seeing what happened to water wore us down. Paying a thousand fold for anything is never cool. We realized the joke was on us.

Initial society meetings were filled with stories of Evian and Pellegrino; we recalled their sophistication, like being somewhere else over a water glass, a little exotica.

But the water pushed on us was the same water gushing out of our taps, except with the delights of carcinogenic bromates, algae, and plastic particles. We were losing our minds; the water we washed, cooked, flushed, and bathed with was being taken lightly, and we could lose it. The peddled water did not even tingle on the tongue.

When we finally got over reminiscing, The Society for the Protection of Tap Water adopted the following motions:

Where freely available water was deemed safe by trusted public authority standards, and readily available –

All members would:

  1. avoid purchasing bottled water
  2. not order bottled water in restaurants
  3. convince others of the value of fresh tap water
  4. carry water purification tablets or drops for emergency use
  5. learn as much as possible about their local water supply
  6. carry refillable water bottles when travelling

The society has been successful in its proselytizing, and will not stop till The Society for the Protection of Tap Water becomes an anachronism. It will then voluntarily disband and dissolve, until its existence is again needed. We remain optimistic.

 

Of Dreamers

What does it mean to dream in a world where dreams seem reserved for those in power? And power has decided you are to merely exist?

I dream of a place were all private education is banned, and all students have the same high standard of free education. Of then watching funding for education improve.

I dream of a place where public housing architects and town planners have to live in their own designs for five years after completion. Of then watching housing policy change.

I dream of a place where the highest-paid person in an organization can only earn twenty-five times the lowest paid person. Of then watching wage policy shift.

I dream of a place where there is a singular National Health Service for all, free at point of need, paid for by all, and used by all. Of then watching healthcare recuperate.

I dream of a place were utilities are collectively owned. Where profit is ploughed back into public infrastructure. Of then watching service delivery deliver.

I dream of a place where corporations are taxed like people. Of then watching financial speculation alter.

I dream of a place where dreamers are not considered naive because they dare to dream differently.

 

Optimism

It is not news that fresh and salt water supplies are polluted by human interaction. It is not news that the impoverished have their lives drastically blighted, impaired, and shortened through water policy, nationally and globally. It will not shock anyone to hear that water is diverted for the wants of the powerful at the expense of the needs of the weak. This has become background noise. It is not revolutionary to say most people know how to protect and deliver fair water supply.

Doomsday prophecies that the Third World War will be fought over water abound, yet the net planetary water supply remains constant. Water does not leech into space, and we are incapable of making water disappear, so the question is not whether we have enough water globally, but where it is, and how it is treated.

Altering water’s status from public necessity to private good has undermined collective abilities to protect water. Placing profit over clean water supply has dire consequences, as the inhabitants of Flint, Michigan will tell you. I speak of Flint because sometimes it is easier to acknowledge obvious injustices from afar.

 

Nothing New

Audre Lorde said: “There are no new ideas, just new ways of giving those ideas we cherish breath and power in our own living.”[1] I remind myself of this as I write.

Contemporary society has made equitable social security systems an imperative. Call them what you like: safety-nets, handouts, societal depressants, social engineering, blood money, guilt assuagers, leveling devices, fair distribution of wealth, anything at all, as long as a reasonable minimum standard of living is made available for all. It is only when society is fair that talk about water can elicit change.

When I consider South Africa, I see a country that puts inequality to work to benefit a few. This is a country with unbelievable income inequality, with the world’s highest Gini coefficient – where zero is best, and one is worst – at 0.62.

To imagine that the population will agonize over dumping their waste into their closest river when they cannot afford or manage an alternative is farcical. To hold liable a day laborer who earns 200 Rand a day, if they are lucky, for inadequate water infrastructure through forms of indirect taxation is criminal. Where clean water is a luxury for some, others worry about the state of their gardens, esoterically discussing water collapses.

 

Jukskei River

Our daughter loved the water, since she was born. She loved bath time, she would beam whenever one was coming. So ending up by the river had its perks, even if the better life we travelled for hadn’t quite transpired. We got to Alexandra and space for living was made for us by the river. A hard place to settle down into, but she loved it all the same. We agonized day and night, as we watched our four-year-old daughter play next to one of the most polluted rivers in the city. We worried about inevitable disease, seeing raw sewage and debris in the water we relied on daily.

She was a child and adventure trumped danger. She was smart and wary enough to recognize risk, so we calmed ourselves when going out in search of work, as employers do not look kindly on accompanying children.

Our daughter was fascinated by the river, I explained that it was over fifty kilometres long. We went to Ellis Park, telling her the Jukskei River started under there somewhere, and emerged into the Crocodile River in Lanseria. She asked me where the river was, and I explained it had been forced underground through most of the city, hiding the pollution from sensitive eyes and noses that erupted downstream. She was confused at a hidden river, but it was a good day out.

We were asleep when the rains started. We awoke to floating possessions – flooding had happened before, but this was different. We had to get out before our home crashed down.

We stepped into the dark rain, I carried our daughter, as the ground shifted, and waters rose around my legs. I grabbed my wife’s hand and we ran for the closest tree. We climbed to safety, and watched people’s lives wash along below us. My wife shivered on one branch, our daughter and I on another. I held her, trying to make sense of the flood, thinking of how to rebuild, recover from losing everything.

The branch swayed in the rain, and before I could react, it broke and she fell into the water. I jumped into the darkness after her, I did all I could, but she was gone, I felt myself drowning and struggled back to the tree. I remember the sound of my wife wailing – I cannot forget the sound of my wife wailing.

We searched for our daughter, hoping for a miracle. The police came to assist, diving under the brown mess. I wondered what they would be able to see. They did not find our daughter. Eventually all we did was sit and watch the waters roll by. People were kind to us, but kindness was not what we needed.

Ten days later we were told the body of a girl had been found downstream, by people mending their lives, trapped among building material.

We will mourn our daughter till we can mourn no more. I cannot imagine there is a time we will not mourn.

 

Going to the Toilet

I remember my sense of horror the first time I heard of a child drowning in a pit latrine. His name was Michael Komape, he was five years old, and he died at school in Limpopo, in January, 2014. Then Lumka Mketwa, another five-year-old in Bizana, Eastern Cape, drowned at school, in March 2018, another pit latrine. Recently, July 2018, three-year-old Omari Monono drowned in the toilet at home in Limpopo. These are the deaths I know of. I sincerely hope there are no more to add to this roll.

These children died because they were denied access to water and sanitation facilities. What is rightfully theirs as citizens in their own country has become a deadly fantasy. This in a country that has the highest number of swimming pools per head in the world. It is interesting how plumbing works for you depending on who you are.

I imagine that if I say the word “shit” some will be offended at its harshness, but this is what the children died in: Shit. It makes me think of Nina Simone not being played for saying “Goddam” in response to lynching. That the obscenity of infanticide is not a constant buzz in the national consciousness simply re-inscribes my horror.

 

Ruling the Air

The dream was how to control the flow and supply of fresh air, and be able to charge for this air we would now own. We would be the richest people on Earth.

We knew there would be protests, and possibly bad press, but we would have so much money we could buy the press. There would be competing air supply chains to ours, but as long as they paid us royalties, all would be well. Those that challenged our dominance would be vilified, and we would buy pliable governments to convince their people that air should be privatized for their own good.

The reality is, we managed this.

Okay, a few people died, but think of the profits. If the dead could not afford clean air, it is not our fault. We have to protect our investments, with shareholders to consider. The goal of business is profit: The people complaining about business models and practices will batter down our doors if dividends dropped. Why else was the IPO so successful? What people said and what they did differed in our favor.

Accusations that we deliberately pollute free air, push for fewer laws to protect airspace, or that we bribe environmental officers to draft policy in our favor cannot be proven. As accusations they are libellous, but it would be a waste of resources to pursue retractions in the courts.

We have invested in aerological gardens to protect bird life for future generations, and are proud of the business environmental award we received for this. It is projected that visitor figures for the next financial cycle will double. If this happens, the aerosphere will make a sizeable profit.  And there is nothing wrong with a little profit.

It is clear: The world has to accept privatized air, and those who can afford it will breathe deeply.

 

Raimi Olakunle Gbadamosi (born 1965 in Manchester) is a contemporary British conceptual artist, lecturer and writer.

 

 

[1] Lorde, Audre, Learning from the 60s (1982) in Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches by Audre Lorde (Berkeley: Crossing Press, 2007), 134-144.

 

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