“Water is the source of all life – The Koran.”
The primitive solar system was a chaotic place. From 4.6 to 3.5 billion years ago, a young, hot Earth was bombarded by icy asteroids, comets and small protoplanets. Volcanic eruptions spewed methane, ammonia, water vapor and other gasses to blanket the Earth in a fragile atmosphere. As the planet cooled, water vapor in the atmosphere rained down upon the surface to form the oceans.
Early Earth’s briny sea was a soup of organic molecules subjected to volatile atmospheric conditions with tempestuous winds and constant lightening strikes. Within the primitive oceanic broth, molecules collided, reacted and reformed until self-replicating compounds began the metabolic processes that sparked the beginning of life.
Consequently, human cultures across the globe have always held water, the most abundant substance on the surface of the earth, as sacred. In Genesis, Yahweh separated the waters creating the dome of the sky and the waters of the Earth. In Ancient Egypt, all that exists was born of Nu, the primordial chaotic sea. The Ancient Babylonians believed that Tiamat (salt water) and Apsu (fresh water) combined to form the first gods who in turn became the progenitors of all life. Poets, artists and writers throughout the ages have compared the flow of a river to the course of a lifetime. Art, science and myriad creation myths share an innate knowledge that water is the source of life itself.
H2O is a simple molecule comprised of one oxygen atom combined with two hydrogen atoms. The molecular structure of water is believed to be a bent, boomerang shape with the hydrogen atoms at either end and the oxygen atom at the apex in the center.
The shape and orientation of various components lend water some very unique properties. Hydrogen exerts a positive charge, while oxygen tends toward a negative charge giving the molecule a distinct polarity. The positive poles on one molecule are attracted to the negative poles on nearby water molecules in a phenomenon known as “cohesion.” This property allows water striders to skate across the surface of a puddle without drowning. The polarity of water also allows for the capillary action that transports water from the roots of forest giants hundreds of feet against the force of gravity to be exhaled on the breath of the leaves of trees. Water is a remarkable solvent, and has the remarkable property of being less dense in a solid state than in a liquid state allowing ice to float on water.
When the first brave vertebrate left the ocean realm hundreds of millions of years ago, it took the ocean onto the land within its body. Water is the solvent in which all of our metabolic activities take place. It runs through our veins and plumps our cells. Almost 70% of our body is comprised of water. As the most basic necessity of life, water is the resource scientists look for on other planetary bodies as an indicator for extraterrestrial life.
Water, like the air we breathe, occupies a resource realm of its own. It is necessary for life, eternal and abundant yet fragile and precious. It burbles up from the land and snakes through the landscape charting a determined course back to its origins in the sea. It rides on the winds, falls from the sky, and penetrates into the earth joining ancient aquifers only to percolate out lifetimes later to rejoin a river back to the sea. It is always moving. Water never disappears, but instead is constantly reborn into new lives and new possibilities. The same molecules of water that exist in our veins once lived in the primordial oceans of ancient Earth and in the cosmic dust that once swirled through the vast universe. None of us truly owns water. We merely make use of it as it passes through our organism and onto its next life.
Water is abundant. It covers approximately 71% of Earth’s surface. 97% of this water is contained within Earth’s oceans. A further 2.4% of Earth’s water is contained within glaciers and polar ice caps. A mere 0.6% of this vital resource is found in lakes, rivers, aquifers and other fresh water bodies. At any time, only a small fraction of a percent of the water on Earth is bound up by Earth’s life forms.
Completely dependant upon water for survival, human civilizations formed along the sacred rivers of antiquity - the Jordan, Tigris, Ganges, Euphrates, Thames, Rhine and Nile rivers to name a few. So revered were the ancient rivers, they were worshipped as goddesses, and the veneration persists within many cultures into the current day.
Initially, Homo sapiens’ water consumption was limited to the basic necessities of drinking, cooking, bathing and subsistence agriculture. Civilizations persisted for millennia observing natural hydrological cycles and sustainably using the water resources available to them. With the advent of industrial agriculture and manufacturing, however, water consumption has skyrocketed.
Even though water is one of Earth’s most abundant resources, we are running short. The intensive irrigation of monoculture crops is resulting in the depletion of ancient aquifers on a global scale. Marginal lands are rapidly being lost to desertification and reservoir levels are dropping. As primeval rivers are diverted from their natural courses to the sea, fisheries stocks are declining and entire ecological communities are collapsing.
As we use water with indiscriminant gluttony, we also dump the poisons of our activities into the fragile hydrological cycle. Toxin-filled runoff spews off farmlands poisoned with chemical fertilizers and pesticides and chokes the life out of rivers and streams. As the rivers run their inevitable course to the sea, we are using the sacred ocean, birthplace of creation, as a toilet for the byproducts of our greed.
In spite of our misguided ways, hope for the future remains. Many communities worldwide are returning to traditional agriculture and water conservation strategies to restore rivers and aquifers to their rightful place of respect and reverence.
“The earth has enough for the needs of all but not for the greed of a few – Mahatma Gandhi”
References and Recommended Further Reading
1- Shiva, Vandana (2002). Water Wars. South End Press, Cambridge, MA.
2- De Villiers, Marq (2000). Water – The Fate of our Most Precious Resource. Stoddart Publishing Company Limited, Canada.