Can a poem kill a child?
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This poem often gets read at national and international conferences on water policy. 

What’s water?

Water is far from a simple commodity

Water’s a sociological oddity

Water’s a pasture for science to forage in

Water’s a mark of our dubious origin

Water’s a link with a distant futurity

Water’s a symbol of ritual purity

Water is politics, water’s religion

Water is just about anyone’s pigeon

Water is frightening, water’s endearing

Water’s a lot more than mere engineering

Water is tragical, water is comical

Water is far from the Pure Economical.

So studies of water, though free of aridity,
Are apt to produce a good deal of turbidity.

Written by the great economist Kenneth Boulding, it is a fine poem.   It scans, the rhymes are strong and unforced, and it chimes strongly with our sense that there is something special about water. 

But the underlying sentiment is wrong.  All wrong.  Water is not special.  It is a natural resource, which obeys the laws of economics like any other.  This matters because of those readings at the water conferences.  

They goes like this.  A health expert speaks on the vital need for clean water, an engineer shows how it can be delivered, and an economist shows the benefits of pricing and of secure property rights.  

Then an environmentalist stands up and says that’s all very well but:

“Water is special.  Water is too important to be left to the market.  It’s wrong to make profits from water.  Water must be free.”

The environmentalist then reads this poem, usually omitting the last two lines, so it ends with the line "water is far from the Pure Economical." 

Instead of justly laughing the environmentalist off the stage, the well-watered audience sighs in agreement and the conference report fails to advocate privatisation and secure water rights. 

Unsurprisingly politicians take fright at water reform and the local water company remains nationalised.   Water remains under-priced, misallocated and polluted, and the children who drink it keep dying of diarrhoeal diseases. 

I’m not suggesting that this poem is responsible for as many deaths as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring[1].  But if it prevented the introduction of even one sensible water policy, it will indirectly have killed some. 

Poetry is powerful.   It can also be deadly. 

Jim Thornton, Lahore.  April 2006

[1] By some estimates three billion avoidable deaths, largely from malaria, were caused by the worldwide ban on DDT which resulted from Carson’s book.  Click here


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Last modified: November 12, 2006