Water Art in the Face of Climate Change

15 February, 2017

In this second part of a 2-part series, Explorer and founder of AquaAid International, Sophie Hollingsworth, shares a look at water art projects that address climate change and raise awareness about the importance of clean water. To learn more about Sophie’s adventures and AquaAid’s groundbreaking work, read Part 1.

Watercolor Field Painting of Rasa Freddy Wilson - Paramount chief of Maewo Island.

As a scientist, I believe in the power of art to educate, engage, and empower in ways that numbers and data can’t. Throughout history, the arts have played an important role in recording and reflecting the state of human society. But sometimes, we need the arts as a catalyst for change. Now is one of those times.

At AquaAid, we believe in promoting the arts as a vehicle for solution-oriented planning and development across the globe. While we've impacted a lot of lives through access to clean water, the biggest impact has been through art. While we need the rational, practical knowledge of science, we also need that personal aesthetic that art provides. Nowhere is this need more important than in illiterate, remote communities.

All of AquaAid’s projects include a comprehensive education program to provide the community and children basic knowledge of water and sanitation. AquaAid developed a primary school curriculum to teach concepts of handwashing and the importance of clean water. One of the most rewarding things for myself and the AquaAid team is the spontaneous applause that erupts when a child in the classroom correctly answers a question about handwashing.

“Sometimes we need the arts as a catalyst for change. Now is one of those times.”

Life on Maewo Island, Vanuatu. Left to Right: Sand Drawing. Ngwotari (female chief) Sugar Cane Dance. Rasa (male chief).

We started with a seemingly simple coloring book. When I looked into artistic resources to help bolster Nicaraguan teachers' curriculum, all I could find were developing-nation or urban-slum specific educational resources, which weren’t appropriate for kids living in really remote settings. How could I encourage children in remote regions to wash their hands after playing at the playground when they didn't even know what a playground was? So I decided to design our own coloring book. We held a competition in Florida where we taught children about water security issues and then they could submit line drawings which were then incorporated into the book. Our kids were absolutely ecstatic. Most had never even used a crayon.

We then work with kids to create paper sculptures that depict the water cycle. We play singing and dancing games with glitter, to simulate disease transmission, and show the children just how easily germs are transmitted. For many children, this time creating water art is a rare respite from laboring in the fields.

For another installation, AquaAid provided children with cutouts of water drops, and the children wrote why water was important to them on one side, and then painted or colored on the flip-side. We strung all the water drops on the window bars of the school, and thought that would be the extent of the activity. But the children were so jazzed about their artwork on display that they could hardly wait to steer their parents in for a show and tell. The entire community showed up.

Life on Maewo Island, Vanuatu. Left to Right: Female chief with bananas and taro, future female chief, traditional ceremonial attire of Naone.

This past summer, I lived on Maewo Island in the Republic of Vanuatu, on assignment for the Explorer's Club and WINGS WorldQuest, there to document the possible existence of a remote tribe of female chiefs. During my time there, I gained a rare look into a complex culture and experienced firsthand the effects of water variability. In the village of Nurovorovo, access to clean drinking water used to be found in a natural spring, a mere five-minute walk from the village. Women went to the spring to collect drinking water and engage in the practice of water music, a central component of Vanuatu life, by making sounds with the water through scooping, splashing, and slapping the water. Water music is exclusively a women's practice, but it's not ritualized, which makes it more accessible than any other cultural expression in Vanuatu.

Water music inspires us to acknowledge that we're part of nature and not separate from it. Unfortunately, the practice is becoming more rare because of the increasing distances the women must go to collect water. The spring that used to be a five-minute walk from the village has dried up. Now, women must walk 30 minutes each way to collect water. It's a strenuous walk deep in the jungle, and by the time they get to the new natural spring, they're tired and tight on time, resulting in a decline in the amount of water music being practiced, a threat to the ethnosphere and survival of this culture.

The people of Maewo Island have a connection to water on a very deep, symbolic level. When we hear about threats to biodiversity and conservation, that threat extends from the natural ecosystem to the biodiversity of cultures. Water music isn’t the only form of water-based cultural expression in Vanuatu. Multiple rain dances are performed in natural springs and rivers, all diminishing because of Vanuatu’s drought.

One of my goals in Vanuatu was to support to revitalization of indigenous knowledge in the present day, to ensure it continues to be valued and passed down for generations to come. In his Ted Talk, Wade Davis reported that the great anthropologist Margaret Mead said before she died that her greatest fear was drifting toward a generic worldview, that we would wake from a dream one day, having forgotten that there were even other possibilities. So the arts not only show, but make us feel, the water security problems that we’re facing.

Creative thinking and expression help us to communicate and understand the rich relationships that exist between all things. These relationships are what make our world the intriguing, challenging, and really wondrous experience that it is. We can help solve the world water crisis by bringing it to the forefront of the global agenda and helping empower water security in communities. This involves raising awareness on water access issues and promoting cooperation through the power of water art. AquaAid and I are soon embarking on our most audacious project yet: a worldwide circumnavigation for clean water. Our goal is to start an artistic dialogue with thousands of children who will raise awareness and inspire the next generation to work towards a sustainable future. We’ll harness the creative power of water art to engage and inspire action, but we can't do this without everybody's help.

Read Sophie's Dream of Clean Water here.

Words by The Editors. Drawings and photos by Sophie Hollingsworth. top photo: Maewo Island, Vanuatu - Ngwotari of Maewo Island prepare for pigeon water music dance.

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