Our planet’s fresh water supply is not limitless, and that which remains
is increasingly polluted with bizarre contaminants like Prozac, lye, arsenic
and countless others. Water is a fundamental, life-giving element of good health.
But will we only miss clean, pure water when our well runs dry?
Water—it covers over 70% of the earth’s surface and makes up about the same percentage of the human body. In the Western world, it is almost always there when needed—available at the faucet and in stores behind a myriad of labels. With some bottled water brands on the firing line for wasteful packaging and questionable marketing—a case in point being Aquafina, recently revealed as little more than water taken from “public sources”—attention is shifting back to cheap, old-fashioned tap water. But while H2O, even down to its elemental structure, is remarkably simple, humanity has made the issues that surround it incredibly complex.
Despite the abundance of water in the world, an underlying problem exists—more than 95% of the earth’s supply is in its oceans in saltwater form. With approximately another 2.5% frozen (for now) in glaciers and polar ice caps, only a relatively small amount of freshwater is left for the globe’s living beings to share.
Unfortunately, the numbers don’t improve even when considering the freshwater resources that humanity does have at its disposal. While certain parts of the world are accustomed to relatively good clean water, more than 1 billion people are without regular access to safe drinking water. In India, for example, Delhi—home to more than 13 million—suffers from severe pollution that leaves local water from the Yamuna River virtually undrinkable and citizens prone to a long list of diseases, many of which are fatal.
Karen Kellogg, an environmental studies professor and director of the Water Resources Initiative at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York—a city renowned for its mineral-rich water—explains, “When you’re looking at water quality issues from a human health perspective, the overwhelming problem, globally, is waterborne diseases. Things like cholera and various bacteria [in impure water] lead to diarrhea, dehydration and death.”
Kellogg points out that “we have really done an incredibly poor job of protecting our water resources, from developed countries to developing countries. With climate-change models predicting greater fluctuations in water quantity and more flash flooding, we’re going to have more contaminants entering waterways from surrounding lands. Access to good reliable water sources is a global challenge.”
Thanks to the earth’s hydrological cycle—which involves evaporation into the air, precipitation from clouds, and infiltration back into the soil—water is a renewable resource. However, it isn’t necessarily an unlimited one, if the amount of water consumed exceeds the rate at which the environment can renew it. Kellogg acknowledges that water is often over-consumed, “used in a non-renewable kind of way.” This can lead to subsidence, a long-term sinking of land that impairs the ground’s water-holding potential. Mexico City is a classic example: Some of the city has sunk up to 30 feet, leading to ruptured sewer lines and mangled transportation systems.
Progress or Pollution?
Even in less-drastic scenarios, development often leads to harmful changes in the quality and quantity of nearby water resources. “As you put down pavement,” Kellogg explains, “it alters the ability of aquifers to recharge. You’ve lost that infiltration potential because the water can’t as easily get into the ground.” Water quality will also suffer. “As water percolates down through the ground,” says Kellogg, “some purification goes on. Whereas if water is forced to travel over surfaces such as parking lots, it picks up more contaminants, and that goes directly into surface waters.”
These surface waters—lakes, reservoirs and rivers—are still where many areas of the world draw their drinking water, so it’s no surprise that high pollution levels are registering in water supplies globally. A recent BBC News report indicates that water in many Southeast Asian countries contains dangerously large amounts of arsenic, a naturally occurring metal that can build up in shallow groundwater sources. This can lead to various forms of cancer, as well as lung and skin problems.
Even in places where water is generally treated, pollutants find their way into people’s homes. In April 2007, a treatment plant in Spencer, Massachusetts, experienced a malfunction that allowed a surge of sodium hydroxide (commonly known as lye) into the town’s water supply; over a dozen residents reported chemical burns and ailments. And in 2004 British scientists discovered high levels of Prozac in some of the country’s waterways—calling attention not only to excessive antidepressant use but also to the many chemicals that are overlooked when testing water quality.
While 20th-century scientists refined methods for closely monitoring E. coli and other harmful bacteria in water supplies, the advent of new water-wasteful technology hasn’t necessarily been factored into 21st-century practices. “The thing that we don’t know that much about now are all of the compounds that we’re putting into water supplies that we don’t necessarily test for—things that are leaking from landfills—waste produced from cell phones, computers, and [other relatively recent] technology,” says Kellogg. “All of those compounds that are possible or probable carcinogens—we don’t know enough about that yet.”
Although humanity can undo some of the damage with improved water treatment, its seemingly ever-present urge to manipulate nature has led to some stunning hydrological catastrophes. One of the greatest manmade disasters: Russia’s Aral Sea. The earth’s fourth biggest inland body of water before its connecting rivers were diverted for cotton farming, the Aral was almost entirely drained over the course of 30 years. In Water Wars: Drought, Flood, Folly and the Politics of Thirst (Riverhead Hardcover), Diane Raines Ward writes about the grievous results: “Ships lie stranded in the sand and some former towns are as far as 90 miles from the receding shoreline. The once-thriving fishery is gone. Worst of all is the toxic nightmare that has devastated the lives of the million and a half people who live nearby. What water remains in the rivers that flow into the sea is filled with such a heavy load of pesticides, fertilizers and salt that nearly all the water—under or above ground—is contaminated.” That pollution takes its toll: “Little grows in the region, and the people suffer a plague of illnesses: kidney and thyroid disease, cancers, viral hepatitis, tuberculosis and probably the highest rate of anemia in the world. Life expectancy is shorter by 20 years than it is in other parts of the former Soviet Union.”
Halfway around the world in the United States, college students visiting water-stressed areas as part of Kellogg’s Water Resources Initiative have witnessed what could be a harbinger to that grim scenario. During a class trip to Southern California, she recalls seeing a stretch of the Colorado River bed that was “totally bone-dry. Not to be dramatic, but it was one of the most shocking moments of my life.” Since the US relies on a large percentage of its produce from that area’s Coachella and Imperial Valley regions, Kellogg points out that the situation could impact the food distribution system both nationally and globally.
A Fundamental Human Right
Another concerning freshwater issue is privatization, which has increasingly been an alternative to public water ownership since the early 1990s. Though privatization can be seen as beneficial in certain areas, particularly in impoverished regions, the results don’t always best serve the public or the environment. “Water is a fundamental human right, and when you start putting it under the control of the private sector, that shifts,” Kellogg notes.
The Pacific Institute, a prominent California-based environmental organization, has responded to the increase in water privatization by publishing a report entitled “Beyond Privatization: Restructuring Water Systems to Improve Performance,” which emphasizes, among other things, better maintenance of existing waterways, rather than inefficient, privately funded overhauls. The Pacific Institute advocates a “soft path” to global water management, stressing awareness that strives to preserve clean water for both humankind and the natural world.
Clearly, the Pacific Institute recognizes an important basic truth—water is life. Without it, no animal or plant could exist on the earth, and the planet would be little more than a giant arid asteroid floating in space. Masaru Emoto, a Japanese writer and researcher with a doctorate in alternative medicine, has taken the connection between water and life, and explored it in an unconventional way, with intriguing results. Emoto’s studies claim that positive or negative thoughts and scenarios can affect the structure of water, and make themselves evident in frozen water crystals. According to Emoto’s photographic findings, water that comes from a clean source, is blessed, or is the subject of benevolent thoughts or written messages reveals itself in aesthetically pleasing crystals, while water that is polluted, cursed or receives malevolent thoughts or messages appears in unattractive crystal form.
Although Emoto’s results have yet to be reproduced by others, the ideas behind his work are undeniably fascinating and not without merit. After all, as Emoto recognizes the beauty of water, he also refers to its inherent “mystery,” never taking it for granted, and acknowledging its role in human vitality and spirituality. While many in the developed world see water as a commodity that can be bought, sold, diverted and manipulated, Emoto and his researchers look at water with both an open mind and a sense of wonder, returning the focus to its elemental nature.
If the collective global outlook on water could shift even slightly towards Emoto’s view—while also embracing the concept of the Pacific Institute’s restorative plans—then international water issues might be met with real progress. If that happens, the world’s most precious liquid might once again be widely revered for its amazing simplicity.