Drink it But Lose the Bottle, Colltalers
Water, Earth’s arguably most important element, is having quite a busy time. From playing villain in the climate change drama to disappearing in vast regions, while showing up unannounced in distant moons, it seems now ready for its top billing closeup.
Since 1993, when the United Nations began to observe March 22 as World Water Day, increased demand has caused extended droughts where people need it the most, and, indirectly, the threat of rising sea levels to billions living in coastal areas.
What appears as a contradiction has, in fact, a common cause in our predatory way of living and wasteful use of natural resources, combined with overpopulation. We tend to forget how finite and vulnerable a resource water really is.
Even when it’s tangential to progress, water can determine the fate of entire ecosystems and the communities depending on them. In this context, its commoditization has aggravated both its scarcity and the possibility that it’ll choke the livelihood of so many.
Consider bottle water, whose over consumption – Americans, for instance, consume an average of 30 gallons a year – has created an explosion in plastic pollution in landfills and, specially, the oceans, wreaking havoc with marine life and metastasizing the effects of environmental damage on climate. From manufacture to discarding, everything about a bottle of water is wasteful.
And yet, its main consumers are irony-free advocates of a ‘natural’ lifestyle. Most would be interested in replacing soda in their diet for water. It’s when the conversation veers to what to do with the containers that the room usually gets quickly empty.
Water also closely tracks the staggering inequalities of our world: while we pay top dollar for our designer bottle, even when tap water in most Western cities is often superior, billions lack the potable kind, or risk life and limb walking miles for it.
Rising sea levels are triggered by the daily release of tons of heat-trapping gases, such as carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. These gases, generated by burning fossil fuels, increase global temperatures and accelerate the melting of ancient glaciers and permafrost. Besides causing floods and reducing coastal lands, this process also releases methane, another heat-trapping gas.
Many a climate change denier have invoked just such a chain of events to declare that, if water is what we need, what’s the problem with having a few inches, or even feet of water added to the oceans? Forget it, it’s not worth arguing with them.
The most obvious problem with this rationale is that it ignores the fact that we can’t survive on salt water, and current desalinization technologies are still extremely costly and energy draining. But even if it were reasonably easy to turn ocean into potable water, we’d still be missing the point: instead of reigning on a destructive way of life, we insist in hanging on to it.
Scientists have recently found yet another factor contributing to rising sea levels: over-pumping of groundwater wells. Again, overpopulation is behind the increased demand for water to irrigate crops and provide to towns. Problem is, all this water – over 4,000 cubic km since 1900 – has found its way into rivers and pathways that ultimately lead to the oceans.
Aquifers and groundwater rivers are abundant inside Earth, but they are in there for many reasons, chief among them, to support life. They replenish river beds, counter the effects of droughts, and allow people to live in regions too far from sources of surface water. But its function is to remain a reserve, not to irrigate lawns or golf courses just because their owners can afford it.
Such a utilitarian view of water is also part of the problem, and why we pay so high a price to continue burning fossil fuels, while we haven’t really invested in new, practical ways of preserving such an infinitely more important resource.
In India, there’s a man who’s just won the 2015 Stockholm Water Prize, for bringing it to a thousand villages. Rajendra Singh, the ‘Water Man of India,’ used an old technique that ‘harvests’ water and keeps it underground for future use.
In the meantime, just to show that the problem is not exactly lack of water but ways of doing what Rajendra did, to harvest it, there are the surprising findings that two more moons in the solar system may contain generous amounts of it.
It’s long known that Jupiter’s ice-covered moon Europa has a vast internal ocean, and that there’s some in our own moon. Now, one of Jupiter’s other giant satellites, Ganymede, and Saturn’s Enceladus, may join in the roster. Suddenly, it’s everywhere.
Out there, as on Earth, water is a synonym for life. But since there’s this small matter of how to bring it here, we may find it much easier to simply preserve it. And if you can do one thing about it, don’t buy bottles of water. Have a great Spring. WC