Water Wars: The Postponement of Ecological Issues in a Pandemic Crisis

By Ian Rowlands

Water Wars is an eco-thriller that takes as its premise Steven A. LeBlanc’s position in Constant Battles: Why We Fight: “the consequences of environmental stress will be scarce resources and the consequences of scarce resources will be warfare.” Set in a “heated” future, the action of Water Wars, my latest play, takes place in Wales, a nation that sees its fair share of rain. However, it happens to be situated next to England, a nation that even at the turn of the twenty-first century was experiencing water stress. According to Fred Pearce in When the Rivers Run Dry, “in Southeast England summer rainfall is expected to halve by mid-century and evaporation rates from reservoirs could increase by a third…the echoes of Ethiopia and Sudan suddenly seem not so fanciful.”

Put simply, in order to protect its own ecology, Wales is forced to cut the water pipelines connecting it to England. The historic Other responds in the only way it has ever known, not through negotiation but through negation: an invasion. While political at heart, a strand of Water Wars is domestic: the betrayal of a family by a father. “How could you have compromised us for that woman?”, an ex-wife asks her husband (Eben, an officer in the Eco-force). “You wouldn’t betray this ecology, so why did you betray us? Ecology starts with family, Eben, the smallest sustainable unit.” But describing the play’s plot is beyond the remit of this short reflection.

What is of immediate interest is that rehearsals for the production began on Monday, March 9. On March 11, the markets rallied 1.5% and I remained confident we would open. However, the following day, they dropped over 7%. I recall a government advisor who began a TV interview talking of the epidemic. Then, a small slip mid-conversation and the epidemic turned into a pandemic, the first time I’d heard it termed as such. From that moment on, so it seemed to me, the production was destined to be shelved. By Friday the play was fully blocked and the producer was eager to record it for webcast before any threat of lockdown. However, on the Sunday, the production designer self-isolated and events overtook our best intentions.

There are countless other productions around the globe held in similar abeyance. Many of those will be about ecological issues; postcards from what was the front. However, another front has opened up and the battle for the world’s ecology is relegated to column inches on page seven. The currency of ecology has been devalued.

But everything is ecology, for all is family. Searching for feelgood stories during the pandemic, our media lists the positive impacts that this current calamity has had on the environment: Jalandhar residents awake to a view of the Himalayas for the first time in 30 years, people can breathe in the streets of Beijing, and car use in Britain has returned to levels not seen since the 1950s.

In this time of crisis, when the cult of celebrity is shown to be the vacuous shibboleth it is, ecology has taken up its frivolous role: a diversion from the real. I realize that I am being glib, but, as a fellow theatre maker in Iceland recently wrote, “everything has changed, and nothing has changed.”

Soon, Trump will open up the United States economy, regardless of the human consequences,  for the markets profit from both life and death. To paraphrase Homi Bhabha, in an emergency, there is only the emergence of financial opportunity: new billions to make. And make no mistake, people are on the make, and this is what concerns me. The bull market will trade more viciously after this pandemic. While the emphasis will be on economic recovery, the human and ecological cost will be weighed and found wanting, as will democracy, I fear, and anything else that stands in the way of liberal economics.

The cast rehearsing the play with the director, producer and stage manager in Cardiff.

After six weeks on lockdown, I now wonder whether Water Wars will ever be realized. Not that it is unrealizable – the set is constructed, the soundscape gathered, the light plot drafted, the lines learnt, the text proofed for printing, the desire to stage, great – rather, I wonder whether the people will have any interest in it (and all eco-theatre) when they emerge traumatized from this time of fear? A shame, for I think they should. How many will draw the line between the pandemic and ecology?

And yet, in order to rebuild, we (for we are all complicit) will further compromise our planet (the desire for that latest iPhone, stag parties in Prague, strawberries in December) and in so doing, we shall run backwards into the future yet again. We are all Benjamin’s Angel of History, progressing blindly, heedless of further destruction.

Zoonosis â€“ the transmission of pathogens between non-human and human (the probable cause of this pandemic) – is an ecological issue, for all is ecology. Ecology is not a feel-good story in a time of stress, it is the only story. The line must be drawn.

Script-in-hand reading in Carmarthen with the cast. From the left: Dick Johns, Gwyn Vaughan Jones, Bethan Ellis Owen and Russell Gomer.

Out of this tragedy, theatre must emerge stronger, more committed. It will emerge because it has to. For theatre presents us with opportunities for dissensus; that is, to quote Jacques Rancière, “a practice that invents new trajectories between what can be seen, what can be said and what can be done.” We will need our theatre. We will need it to see for us all, to say for us all, to invent, even demand, a better future for us all. I hope that Water Wars (and all eco-texts) will be seen at some point in the future, and that it will open up its own small dissensual space that can, along with other such spaces, allow the dreaming of new trajectories as we emerge out of this mess.

(Top image: Ian Rowlands directing actors Gwyn Vaughan Jones and Russell Gomer in Water Wars.)


Ian Rowlands is a Wales-based director and dramatist. His short play Bottoms Up was included in Where is the Hope? An Anthology of Short Climate Change Plays, published by the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts. Water Wars will soon be published in book form; see the Cwmni Pen Productions website for updates.


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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