Spotlight on Drinking Water

April 27, 2022

In this episode of the Spotlight on Culture, Society, and Religion series, Professor Martha Kaplan of Vassar College examines the different ways in which people in three societies— Fiji, Singapore, and the US—value drinking water differently and describes the role that cultural differences might play in the conservation of water. At a time of environmental uncertainty, Kaplan challenges us to examine our own attitudes to the water we drink and to become more informed and responsible consumers.

About the Expert

Martha Kaplan is Professor of Anthropology at Vassar College. She is a cultural, historical, and political anthropologist who studies power and meaning in colonial and post-colonial societies. Her current book project Water Cultures: Fiji, New York, and Singapore focuses on the different ways in which people value water: as a human need, as a public utility, as a fetishized commodity, as an opportunity for technological innovation, and as an environmental resource.

Start a Conversation

1. Think about what kind of water you prefer to drink. Is it from a tap? Is it bottled? What do you think counts as good drinking water and why?

2. Whose job is it to provide clean drinking water? Should drinking water be freely accessible? Is it a service that consumers need to pay for?

3. Why does culture matter for how we think about water? What are some of the differences and similarities between how Fijians, Singaporeans, and Americans value water? How would understanding the different ways in which people value drinking water help us adopt more sustainable practices in our own nations and communities?

4. What are some of the obstacles to adopting more sustainable water practices where you live? What would it take for people in your community to get behind using recycled water?

5. How has the video changed how you think about your water and where it comes from?

Additional Resources

Lenzer, Anna. “Fiji Water: Spin the Bottle.” Mother Jones. October 2009.

Tortajada, Cecilia and Pierre van Rensburg. “Drink More Recycled Wastewater.” Nature 577 (2020): 26–28. 

Broadening the Conversation

Guyette, Curt. “The Flint Water Crisis Isn't Over.” ACLU of Michigan. April 25, 2018. 

Zambelich, Ariel and Cassi, Alexandra. “In Their Own Words: The Water Protectors of Standing Rock.” NPR. December 11, 2016.