The Ice Bucket Challenge: The Cold, Hard Truth

Millions around the world have taken on the ice bucket challenge to raise money for charity. How did it start? Why did it get slammed by environmentalists and why did Matt Damon use water from his toilet?

By Tom Freyberg Chief Editor

Millions around the world have taken on the ice bucket challenge to raise money for charity. How did it start? Why did it get slammed by environmentalists and why did Matt Damon use water from his toilet?

For those who haven’t seen the headlines, or countless stories on social media sites, this is where you fill a bucket with ice and water, pour it over your head, and nominate three friends to complete the challenge in 24 hours. You then make a donation to charity. A simple, momentary painful experience for a great outcome. All tapping into the power of social media. But how did it start?

In mid July a Florida golfer was nominated by a friend and decided that his donation should go to ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), as his cousin suffered from the disease. A chain of nominations later and it reached Pete Frates, a former baseball player who suffers from ALS. This is when the campaign started truly going global. The likes of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg took on the challenge, before nominating Bill Gates.

According to the official ALS website, donations quadrupled in the last week of August alone. From $22.6 million on August 19th to a staggering $88.5 million on August 26th (30 times more than the same period in 2013). Great entertainment for a great cause. What could go wrong? Well, quite a lot actually.

Videos of millions of people pouring water over themselves inevitably sparked accusations of "wasting water". Questions were asked about tipping perfectly adequate drinking water away while millions in developing countries lacked this privilege. One video from Gaza in protest was an eye opener. Three brothers pour buckets of sand, and even rubble, instead of water over their heads. They said they didn’t have water to waste and intermittent electricity meant they couldn’t make ice. This then started the "Rubble Bucket Challenge". Alarmist headlines also reported how one island in Scotland – Colonsay – had its water system shut down due to demand from the ice bucket challenge.

Hollywood actor Matt Damon, co-founder of water.org, used water from his household toilets. Mentioning a drought in California, he said that past attempts at the challenge "posed a problem" as there’s about "800 million people in the world" who don’t have access to clean drinking water. "The water in our toilets in the west is actually cleaner than the water that people in the developing world have access to," he said.

Doing "a Damon" might be extreme for some, yet how about reusing rainwater from a water butt? Or if you have a garden, stand in a flower patch and give yourself a good soaking there, in the process watering your prize petunias?!

Unfortunately, like every viral phenomenon, the virtual shelf life is quite limited. In a world where social media is now king, and news feeds are updated incessantly, news barely lasts the duration of a day before being replaced. So yes, I'll be taking on the ice bucket challenge and donating, in my garden (but without the prize flowers)…

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