Watergate Reveals Disparities in Urban, Rural Communities

Kiley Petersen, Managing Editor

From the way students reacted to the water boil alert that went into effect early Sunday morning on March 8, you would think the apocalypse had begun. Playfully dubbed “Watergate 2k15,” the citywide lack of water affected students and residents alike until the boil alert was lifted Monday evening. In less than 48 hours, the city was back in operating mode, with College facilities like OSCA, Stevenson Hall and DeCafé returning to regularly functioning schedules very soon after. As I wandered around campus on Sunday and Monday, however, most students were complaining about the lack of clean water, only being allowed one plastic water bottle and unable to take a shower. The thirst was real, which is understandable, because you don’t appreciate how necessary something as basic as water is until it’s gone, but it’s the selfishness and ignorance of the student body that shocked me. I wouldn’t have expected, on a campus that prides and sells itself on its commitment to social and environmental justice, domestic and abroad, that so many students would be uninformed about both the College-community relationship and water usage in developing countries.

One of the main complaints I heard was that, since we were paying $60,000 a year to attend this institution, the least the school should do is provide us with clean water and other basic amenities. While I agree with the fact that the College could definitely improve on dorm infrastructure — the popularity of the Oberlin Jank Facebook page underscores this — the College is not in charge of the water utilities. That’s the city’s responsibility, and no matter how much Oberlin strives to symbolically call itself a city in a vain attempt to appear more important, the reality is that Oberlin College and Conservatory is in the middle of the rural Rust Belt. When the demographic of the student body is mostly urban, upper-middle-class and white, plunking students into a tiny, rural Midwest town is bound to produce some disparity in amenities. The Oberlin Water Division maintains 40 miles of pipeline that bring 2.25 million gallons of water a day to almost 3,000 residences and businesses. While it’s not the massive water projects managed by NYC or LA, I think that’s a pretty impressive statistic, especially when you consider the harsh weather this winter and the crumbling infrastructure that the city is dealing with.

Even more telling is the lack of knowledge or sympathy with water quality around the world. It’s such a First World problem that we freak out about two days with no tap water, despite plenty of bottled water available in Stevie and jugs of water in several dorms, when there are parts of the world that never have safe drinking water. The story in Oberlin would be different if we had no water for two days. Feel free to call me on over-reacting, but I think it’s bullshit how annoyed the student body was by a slight inconvenience that lasted less than 48 hours. I saw little to no discussion of the drought in California or the water shortage in São Paulo. According to Water. org, there are 9 million individuals without access to water in all of North America, Europe and Australia (including Russia and New Zealand), while there are 36 million without access in Central and South America and the Caribbean; 180 million in the Middle East and South and Central Asia; 186 million in East and Southeast Asia and Oceania; and a whopping 358 million in Africa.

Hopefully the lifting of the boil alert will turn students’ focus from their own water problems to those in developing nations and even in the U.S., where rural communities have less consistent access to clean drinking water. In the meantime, Oberlin: Take a shower. Drink some clean water. Realize how lucky you are, because while the phrase “check your privilege” gets thrown out a lot, I think we often forget the privilege we hold as students, especially when compared to the surrounding community.