In the latest news from Fukushima, water in Tokyo has been deemed unfit for babies to consume because of high radiation levels. Not surprisingly, shortages of bottled water are emerging, as people buy up larger quantities.

A top Japanese official urged residents of the nation’s capital not to hoard bottled water Wednesday after Tokyo’s government found that radioactive material in tap water had exceeded the limit considered safe for infants.

“We have to consider Miyagi and Iwate and other disaster-hit areas,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said. “I’d like to again urge consumers not to purchase more bottled water than they need.”

Earlier Wednesday, Tokyo government officials advised residents not to give tap water to infants or use it in formula after tests at a purification plant detected higher levels of radioactive iodine.

Authorities are pleading with people not to buy larger quantities of bottled water, and news accounts are using the word “hoarding” to describe the situation. This is a common outcome – a language that comes out any time people attempt to buy up additional supplies to ensure stable access. And because of this, it is worth talking about.

What is hoarding, as opposed to the less pejorative “storing” or “stocking up” or “just making sure your baby has water next week as well as today?” Why are people so quick to use this language? We have no information in the story about how much total bottled water is available in Tokyo, but I would very much doubt it was enough to ensure adequate liquids to all the infants and young children in the city alone – that is, it is almost certain that in-stock bottled water was going to run out very rapidly once Tokyo’s water supply was contaminated, even if everyone who needed it only bought a little.

Now I am sure that some consumers are exacerbating the problem by buying up larger quantities of water. That said, I’m sure some of them are doing so in the perfectly reasonable understanding that the water crisis may not be resolved by early next week, and that their babies, or ill family members or young children will still want something to drink. They are acting to protect themselves and their families.

It is absolutely true that these acts risk impoverishing and creating shortages for those who didn’t get there first. We saw this in 2008 as well, when food prices spiked – in Thailand for example, rice prices at one point rose more than 25% in a single day. Given a population where the majority spends nearly 1/2 their income or more on food, those price spikes represented a stunning threat to their food security. When they (understandably anticipating that they would like to eat and might be entirely shut out of the rice market) attempted to secure enough rice to make sure there was rice in the coming days, they were accused of hoarding, and their actions of making the situation worse.

The implication of the CNN story, and of many of these news reports is that it is the “hoarding” masses who don’t understand how badly others need it who have caused a crisis. In fact, what we’re seeing is what we always see – the language of hoarding is used as a way of shifting ideological responsibility for lack of preparation and shortage in times of crisis.

Let’s define “hoarding.” Hoarding is an unethical act, and in _Independence Days_ I talk about what actually constitutes hoarding.

Once you are already in a crisis AND there is a meaningful and rational system for ensuring people have access to food, water, medicine or other necessary supplies, building up stores can disrupt the existing system and its fairness. This is hoarding, and it is unethical. That is, if there’s just enough rice to around, *and it is going around in a fairly just way* those who are wealthy enough to build up private stocks can disrupt the system, and shouldn’t.

What is not hoarding? It isn’t building up a reasonable supply of goods before a crisis point (this is only prudent), nor is it attempting to survive and protect the basic health of your family when there is no system of fair distribution. This last is a very important point. The reality is that if you can’t feed your dehydrated infant, there are major health consequences to that and you are not hoarding. If you are worried that what was bad for a 7 month old might be bad for your 2 1/2 year old, and buy water enough for your 2 1/2 year old, you are not hoarding. If you are afraid the water might become entirely undrinkable for everyone, including yourself, your spouse and your elderly parents, and you buy water, you are not hoarding.

Does that justify everyone’s actions? No, I’m sure there are plenty of middle aged businessmen with cases of bottled water who are genuinely impoverishing those who need it most in excess of their capacity to use it – but the vast majority of Tokyo water purchases are probably by people who reasonably wonder whether something so basic as water is or will be unsafe for them and those they love.

There are a lot of muddy grey areas in this, but fundamentally the language of hoarding used on consumers to shift responsibility from societies that have prepared inadequately, from governments that have done the same, and for responses based on a lack of information and a lack of ethical distribution systems.

Shifting moral responsibility for a society’s whole lack of preparation for things to go wrong to individual consumers is unethical – at least as unethical as hoarding. It is only prudent and reasonable for people afraid for the life or health of their family members to act in their best interest. This absolute can exacerbate problems, but the root cause of those problems goes to lack of preparedness.

You’ve all seen those recommendations by the American Red Cross to store “3 days of food and water.” They run occasionally in the newspaper, and every once in a while some political leader reminds you to do make sure you have that recommended supply. Realistically, however, we know historically that 3 days just isn’t enough – and so do millions of Tokyo consumers who may or may not have had a supply of emergency water, but who anticipate, given events at the plant, that the water situation may further decline.

It isn’t hard to know that a few days of food and water isn’t enough – we have plenty of examples. Hurricanes Katrina and Ike, for example, left people who weren’t reached for two weeks. The Gobi earthquake in the 90s had people unreachable for more than two weeks. Various ice storms and blackouts have had the same consequences. Pandemic planning provides for home quarantines that could last as much as 6 weeks in Australia and the US.

The time to prepare for all these realities – at the personal, local, state/prefecture and national levels is *before* the disaster happens, not after. The time to ask yourself how well you will fare was weeks ago – or if you are fortunate enough to live outside of the affected region in Japan, now.

Unfortunately, now is apparently also the time to blame the victims – to use the language of “hoarding” to blame shortages of supplies and inadequate planning on people trying to protect themselves. That may always be the case, but we don’t have to either fail to plan ourselves, or accept the pejorative description for people just trying to get a safe glass of water.