Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans. – Jacques Yves Cousteau
As per a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly March 22 became the World Day for Water from 1993 on. The goal is to make us all more aware of the role and relevance of water in today’s world and act more responsibly in the use of water. We are told that this day is to be devoted “as appropriate in the national context, to concrete activities such as the promotion of public awareness through the publication and diffusion of documentaries and the organization of conferences, round tables, seminars and expositions related to the conservation and development of water resources and the implementation of the recommendations” of the U.N.
So I reflect on water today. We live on terra firma: a small fraction of the earth’s surface. It is estimated that there are some 1.33 million trillion cubic meters of water in the oceans and only some 231 trillion cubic meters in rivers, lakes and ponds. There is plenty of water as ground water and in glaciers. For the most part we depend on rivers, lakes, ponds, and wells for our daily needs. Aside from serving as habitat for animals, plants, and microorganisms, rivers have also given rise to civilizations: Herodotus described Egypt as the gift of the Nile. The Yellow River and the Ganga have done likewise in China and India. Lakes too have been nourishing and sustaining societies since time immemorial.
Water stands still in lakes and ponds, calm and serene, except for ripples caused by breeze or an intruding stone one may fling on its surface. It flows gently as streams or brooks, gurgling as it skips over pebbles on the way. It gushes forth or meanders lazily in rivers. Sometimes the serenely flowing river becomes a rapid, “rising and leaping, sinking and creeping, swelling and sweeping,” as the poet Robert Southey wrote. Now and again a river may unexpectedly take a precipitous plunge as a cascade or waterfall.
Water is at the root of our biology: Every cell in our body contains water. Minerals would be unusable without the water in which their ions migrate. Water is in sweat and saliva, in blood and tears. Even our language is touched by water. Arguments hold no water, things are water-tight, one feels like fish out of water, we let off steam, etc.
Water is cleanser of body and purifier of spirit. It has been deified as Varuna, Poseidon, Neptune, Chalchiuhtlicue, Sequana, Anuket, and more. Like the Divine, water is pure in essence, imperceptible and transparent, pervades everywhere. It flows from high to low, and serves human needs. The Divine too comes down from heaven to help us in our predicaments. In the religious framework, godly thoughts, like water, cleanse and purify our minds.
We often think of water in its liquid form, cool and fresh on a hot summer day, or boiling in a kettle for a hot beverage. But water can also be in frozen stiffness as ice cubes in a glass, as frail patterned snowflakes or icicles, and as mammoth icebergs too. There is water in cushiony clouds, in the air around, and in deep underground. Water pours down as drizzle or summer shower and flows on land as streams and rivers, replenishing lakes and aquifers.
Periods without rain cause draught and death, but people have also perished in heavy floods. Too little of a good thing can be as bad as too much of it.
People row on canals and experience spiritual elation dipping in sacred rivers. The Seine gracefully cuts through Paris inspiring poets and lovers, as does the Danube and other rivers elsewhere. Ganga and Nile, Mississippi and Amazon sustain agriculture in the lands they course through.
The glory days of abundant pure water seem to be receding. True, in some countries households have more than one bathroom, and Jacuzzi to boot. But many regions suffer from acute water shortage. Things are changing for the worse, symbolized as it were by the fact that millions walk around in towns and cities with potable water in plastic bottles. According to a UN report, cities in Europe are using groundwater at unsustainable rates. Today more than a billion people don’t have easy access to safe drinking water.
Vast oceans, home to countless creatures, as well as lovely lakes and sacred are being polluted. Rivers that have nurtured civilizations for millennia are threatened by the very civilizations they nurture.
Experts tell us that our water needs will grow by 40% in the not too distant future, and that in a few decades some 3.5 billion people will be without sufficient fresh water. According to one dire prediction, by 2030 vast regions of the globe, now abundant in agriculture, will become unsuitable for farming. Modifying Coleridge, we might say.
Water, water, everywhere, yet not enough for all to drink,
Water crisis everywhere, of which we all must think.
We can’t afford for long to be wasteful in watering lawns, cleaning cars, and taking showers. We can’t be indifferent to the impending water scarcity in regions near and in distant lands. The hunger and thirst of fellow humans anywhere on earth should make every conscientious person cringe.
Even in the face of all this, we must not succumb to despair. Our species has extraordinary resilience. Many groups and governments and committed individuals are striving to find solutions. We need a better informed public, ideologically unfettered politicians, and enlightened leaders in every country who will go beyond political bickering, religious hatred, and parochial self-interest in confronting the challenges we all face as earthlings. With the knowledge that comes from science, the know-how from technology, and the wisdom and goodwill that flow from awakened religions, we should be able to deal with the threats that are lurking.
Some scientifically informed optimists assure us that by successfully tapping the sun, we can provide enough energy to every nation in the world. Some day we will be desalinating sea-water on a larger scale at reasonable cost, and harvesting rain-bearing clouds that pour down wastefully over the seas.
While such projects are underway, let us continue to gaze at shifting clouds in the sky, rejoice in pearly dews on tender leaves, marvel at falling snow and dangling icicles, delight in a glass of cold water when the day is unduly hot, swim where we can, boil water for beverages and rice, for soup and spaghetti. Let us be grateful for the water cycle that enables snow and shower, irrigation and drinking water.
Homage to Water
Source of all the life we know,
Covering most of the earth below,
In tides you roll, in highs and lows,
In sap of trees, in blood that flows,
You’re in the protoplasm first,
You cool our bodies, quench our thirst.
In creek and brook and pond and lake
The world a wondrous place you make.
You rise as vapors, make a link,
With land through rain that we may drink.
Neither rock nor stone can break you,
But slowly you erode them too.
By your flow in many a land
Many a culture does proudly stand.
As steam and ice you come and go,
Your molecule is H-2-O.
You are a boon to us indeed
You, every life does need.
To you, we our homage give,
Without you none can live.
March 21, 2016