World Water Life
This morning I awoke from a dream. I was standing on a darkened shore, looking out toward the unbroken line of pale horizon. The sea was still and deep, immense and incomprehensible.
I got up and put water into the coffee pot. After breakfast, we drove downtown. The talk on the radio was of the risk of flooding in the Red River Valley, the result of deep snow that accumulated here through the winter. This land is flat, a surface of horizontal clay deposited at the bottom of what was, at the time, the world’s largest lake.
Over the bridge, we crossed the still ice-covered waters of the Assiniboine River, which constantly transports phosphorus and nitrogen that have washed from the fields and feedlots of Saskatchewan and western Manitoba. A little farther along we could see the Red River on our right, carrying those nutrients to Lake Winnipeg, where they will contribute to the ongoing problems of anoxia and cyanobacterial blooms. We passed numerous buildings faced with mottled limestone, every slab of it holding the skeletons of creatures that lived in the waters of a warm, tropical sea.
Arriving at the office, I turned on the computer, then scrolled through the e-mail listings of new results in marine biology and paleontology. In the lab, I poured the water to prepare a pot of lab-grade coffee and began unpacking and washing some of last summer’s collections, laying them out to dry by the sink. These fossils are the remains of animals and plants that lived and died in ancient lagoons and tidal ponds, strange things such as jellyfish, horseshoe crabs, and eurypterids.
Back at the computer I sorted through data, trying to better understand the ecology of ancient tidal flats during an interval of declining sea level. Looking at e-mail again, I discovered something I didn’t know: today was World Water Day. How appropriate it seemed that my day so far had involved virtually nothing in which water was not a major, central factor. World Water Day is focused most specifically on water as a resource, on the push for universal access to clean, fresh water, but it also considers the hydrological cycle, pollution, and climate change.
Those of us who study anything to do with water are, of course, attuned to water-related phenomena as we pass through the world. But what of the rest of the populace? Water is essential to every aspect of our lives, yet day-to-day it seems that we hear far more about the diets and sartorial choices of the infinitely fascinating Kardashian family than we do about water issues.
Unless we are in flood season, or our well runs dry, or our favourite beach is threatened by green scum, water is seen as “worthy but dull.” It is taken for granted until something happens that affects us directly. This basic fact is used to advantage by some governments, and by others whose interests may benefit from wilful misdirection of public attention.
Water is of critical importance, and freshwater and seawater can both be threatened by certain industrial activities. Yet in Canada we are apparently satisfied with a government that, by its actions, has decided that water is entirely dispensable, that aquatic ecosystems are a nuisance and get in the way of efficient industrial development. How else can we understand decisions to close down one of the world’s most important water research institutions, to support the foolhardy development of a bitumen pipeline across the Cordillera to a tanker terminal on a complex and sensitive coastline, and to essentially remove federal protection from the great majority of our inland waterways?
Those of us who study ancient seas can examine only little pieces of huge subjects, which are sporadically preserved and can therefore only be partly comprehended. Modern water is infinitely better studied and understood, but what help are all the studies in the world if we cannot save the things that all of us should hold dear?
© Graham Young, 2013