Some Half-Formed Thoughts for World Water Day, 2014
Our relationship with water is a strange one. We frequently say that water is something we share with all life, it is a basic necessity in almost every human activity, it is a right. But we also see it as a commodity to be bought and sold, and we (North Americans, anyway) assume that it is always available, to be used up as we wish and when we wish.
I think I first really appreciated the strangeness of this relationship about 25 years ago, when we were living in England at the height of Margaret Thatcher’s free-market rule. Her government had by that time finished selling most public utilities to the private sector, and, looking around for further assets to strip, decided that water supplies should be privatized. As a Canadian who had been always taught that water was a public good and should be held in trust, this seemed to me one of the weirdest government decisions ever. How could something that belonged to everyone be sold arbitrarily and perhaps end up in the control of a company managed from another country, owned by unknown shareholders who knows where? How could that be good for the population or for the environment?
Some aspects of our strange relationship with water are probably related to qualities that are basic to humanity. Beyond our need to drink the stuff, Homo sapiens is not really a water-oriented species. Most of us do not swim well or naturally. Modern people may bathe frequently, but this is cultural, and for many generations our ancestors probably entered water rarely, if at all.
We are sometimes told that we each carry the chemistry of the sea within us, but even this is not really true. The salinity of our blood is about nine parts per thousand, whereas the open sea is far saltier, in the range of 35 parts per thousand. Our blood is about as salty as certain landlocked seas into which a considerable amount of freshwater flows. The salinity of the mid part of the Baltic Sea, for example, is about 6-8 parts per thousand. Somehow it does not seem quite so pleasing to say that, “we each carry the chemistry of the Baltic within us” (particularly if you have spent time on the Baltic shore in the heat of summer. Bleah).
Our distant fishapod ancestors left the sea a tremendously long time ago – probably around the mid to Late Devonian Period (some 400-360 million years ago) – and as far as I can tell we have spent a lot of the intervening time in the middles of continents. After primates had lived in the trees for tens of millions of years, our ground-dwelling hominin ancestors most likely evolved in the savanna of east and south Africa, a landscape of mixed forest and grassland. If our blood carries a hint of ancient oceans, I suspect that our brains and senses bear a far larger signature of life in the trees.
We also bear the cultural imprint of life in dry lands, because the dominant world religions were founded in what is now the Middle East. In Biblical stories freshwater is often scarce, it is sought and treasured, and it can have holy properties. Larger bodies of water are important as sources of fish, but they are also forces to be feared; hence the tale of Jonah and the whale, the miracle of Jesus calming the storm, and the Noachian flood.
The Biblical stories are often powerful, but they were written in a pre-scientific age; they betray little understanding of basic ideas we now take for granted, such as the water cycle. Certainly there was no recognition that more than 2/3 of our planet is covered with water. There is apparently still no such recognition on the part of most North Americans; the oceans are hugely important to all of our lives, and our ignorance of them is both egregious and remarkable.
People living along the shores of oceans, lakes, and rivers would have been much more water-oriented, yet they seem to have had only a modest voice in the historical development of “civilized society.” General definitions of civilization often seem to be associated with agriculture, not with our relationship to water. Recognition of civilization in historic cultures tends to be measured by progress with the domestication of plants or beasts, not with progress in the invention of boats or fishing nets, though of course these are also factors that permit a steady provision of high-quality food to a number of people, with a modest input of energy and materials.
In the modern world we like to locate along water, but we also typically turn our backs to it as cities grow – cities like Toronto and New York have largely sold off water access to the highest bidders, who have built a wall of towers that encourage the city to look away from the water and into itself. Water becomes something to escape to, not to orient our day-to-day lives along.
Weathermen think in days and seasons; politicians think in four- or five-year cycles; economists think in one-, five-, or ten-year intervals. These are all relevant to resources, but resources also operate in geological time. What is the actual rate at which the resource is renewed or cleaned, and at what rate can we use it without serious deleterious effects? If we use water too quickly, then it is no longer renewable; most people don’t realize that groundwater is being “mined” in many parts of the world. How will those aquifers ever recover as long as there are immense human populations using them, constantly drawing the water table lower and lower? Parts of the Ogalalla Aquifer in the southwestern US might only last another 25 years, as the water is being depleted, largely for irrigation.We will use it up, just like the Great Auk, the bluefin tuna, or a copper mine.
In the past week, the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has turned our attention to the almost unimaginable bigness of the Earth’s oceans. That search is taking place far from any land in the Roaring Forties, where ships rarely visit and where huge waves are created by the endless wind fetch of the Great Southern Ocean.
Looking at such a world of water, how can we think that there could ever be a shortage? The trouble is, of course, that less than 1% of the world’s water is liquid and fresh, and much of that is in regions with few people, such as northern Canada and Russia. Elsewhere, our rapidly growing populations are rapidly outstripping water supplies. Improving standards of living just make this worse; subsistence farmers in the Third World do not use water to wash their cars or to irrigate golf courses!
Which brings us back to Margaret Thatcher. Much of western society has continued to pursue the “market is always right” approach that she espoused. In our economic system, growth is not just good; it is utterly essential, as demonstrated by the events that accompanied the shrinkage of the recent “Great Recession”. The growth of economies and populations may be necessary to society, but it is not sustainable, and fresh water is one of the resources most likely to become really problematic in the near future.
We can each try to be more “environmentally friendly” in our personal lives, but we are headed toward some very unpleasant events unless someone finds a fix for the global growth conundrum. Considering world water resources, in the immortal words of Walt Kelly, “We have seen the enemy and he is us.”
© Graham Young, 2014