October 24, 2006


Caption: No water, no life.

El Cabrero is convinced there is something sacred about water.

The ancient Chinese sage Lao Tzu said "The highest good is like water in the Tao Te Ching." The ancient Greek philosopher Thales believed water to be at the basis of all things.

In the biblical tradition, water is also central. The Spirit hovered over it in the beginning. The former Hebrew slaves passed through the waters of the Sea of Reeds (or Red Sea, as you like it). Water gushed from the rock in the desert. Jesus was baptized in water. In the Fourth Gospel, blood and water flowed from the wound in his side.

Melville described its fascination thus in Moby-Dick:

Say you are in the country; in some high land of lakes. Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries--stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region. Should you ever be athirst in the great American desert, try this experiment, if your caravan happen to be supplied with a metaphysical professor. Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded forever.

Unfortunately, this highest good may wind up being a scarce and fought-over resource in this new century which has gotten off to such an unpromising start. Some have called it the new oil.

For a very good overview of the State of the Liquid, check Michael Specter's "The Last Drop: confronting the possibility of a global catastrophe" in the Oct. 23 New Yorker.

Here are some not-too-fun facts about water he provides:

*"nearly half the people in the world don't have the kind of clean water and sanitation services that were available two thousand years ago to the citizens of ancient Rome."

*Over a billion people lack access to drinking water and about the same number have never seen a toilet.

*On a related note, half the hospital beds in the world are filled with people with easily preventable water-borne diseases.

*In the last 10 years, more children have died from diarrhea than the total number of people killed in all armed conflicts since World War II.

*Clean water could save two million lives a year.

*Thirty percent of the schools in the developing world have no water of any kind.

*The United Nations has estimated that even if the Millennium Development Goals aimed at eliminating the worst poverty are met (which is unlikely) 30 to 70 million people will die in the next fifteen years from preventable water-related diseases.

Clearly, the global struggle for economic justice is going to be in large part a struggle for water.

But as bad as the situation is, the article suggests that a global water meltdown is not inevitable given the effort and will to avoid it. According to water scientist Peter Gleick,

I would argue that almost everything we do on earth we could do with less water...This is really good news, you know. Because it means we can do better. We don't need to run out of water. We just need to think more seriously about how we can avoid using it.



Anonymous said...

The issue in some current conflicts is really resource shortage, and the scarcity of water in the middle east will continue and escalate no doubt in the coming years. Having lots of oil is great, but you can't drink oil....

Anonymous said...

See Ismail Serageldin's web site for more interesting info.
He once said "The wars of the next century (the 21st) will be about water."
I agree.