I’m a limnologist. I study and help manage water in our environment; its flow, distribution, storage and properties. I look at how water changes the landscape, carving out huge valleys, forming deltas at river mouths, and polishing pebbles smooth on a lakeshore. I investigate the effects of its contamination by toxins, organic pollutants and disrespect. In its solid form, water has scraped out huge swaths of land and formed some of our largest lakes, dropping moraine in places and melt water from ice blocks elsewhere. In its gaseous form, water controls climate and weather.
Water arrived on Earth in comets and asteroids some 4.5 billion years ago. Scientists have found water everywhere in the universe, from almost every planet and moon in our solar system to the Sun, other stars and black holes that spit water 80 times faster than a speeding bullet and equal to the amount that flows through the Amazon every second. Water is the second most common molecule in the universe. Scientists discovered a quasar (bright and violent galactic nuclei, fuelled by a supermassive black hole) in the “early universe” that harbors 140 trillion times the amount of water on Earth; this suggests that water was prevalent in the universe for nearly its entire existence.
Water is the most common substance on Earth and dominates the chemical composition of all life. Chemically, the water molecule is basically two atoms of hydrogen joined to one of oxygen. Simple. Not so simple.
For something so “simple”, water is pretty complex. Its unique properties make water likely the most important element of our existence and in ways most of us can’t possibly imagine. Without water no life form could exist. Water’s unique—and anomalous—properties, such as its thermal density, high specific heat, viscosity, and liquid–solid characteristics ensure that life thrives. If not for these anomalous properties, north temperate lakes would ice up completely in winter, killing virtually all their aquatic life; lakes and oceans around the world would not mix and stratify, and would fail to provide essential nutrients to aquatic biota. As a gas, water is the lightest known. As a liquid, it is much denser than expected; and as a solid, it is much lighter than expected, compared with its liquid form. Water can be very sticky and very slippery at the same time. Its high surface tension and its expansion on freezing help erode rocks and create soil for plant growth. Water is a universal solvent. It transports all kinds of things from the sediment of the Nile River to the oxygenated blood cells in your arteries. Water stores energy and heat. It responds to and changes the properties of all manner of things. Water can exist in its liquid form, freeze, melt, evaporate, heat, sublimate and combine with many elements.
Although two thirds of the Earth’s surface is covered in water, 97 percent is salty and 2 percent is locked up in snow and ice. That leaves 1 percent for us to drink, bathe, and grow our crops. Less, really, because some of that water is contaminated. This one percent of freshwater moves through sea, wind, rain, river, lake and ground and back to sea in a cycle that humanity has yet to fully comprehend and use wisely.
Since dinosaurs quenched their thirst in the soupy marshes of the Triassic Period millions of years ago to the rain falling on your house today, the amount of moisture on Earth hasn’t changed. Yet, scientists predict that by 2020 about 30-40% of the world will suffer from water scarcity. By 2025 1.8 billion people will live where usable water is scarce and two-thirds of the world’s population will live in water-stressed areas.
“Water is life,” says author Barbara Kingsolver in an article in the 2010 Water Issue of National Geographic. “It’s the briny broth of our origins, the pounding circulatory system of the world. We stake our civilizations on the coasts and mighty rivers. Our deepest dread is the threat of having too little—or too much.” North Americans use about 100 gallons of water at home every day, yet the world’s poorest subsist on less than 5 gallons, many walking miles to get their water. All life is made from 50 to 95 percent water with humans averaging 70 percent. Some scientists now tell us that—although an adult human contains generally two-thirds water—on a molecular level, our water content is closer to 99%.
We are water.
What we do to water we do to ourselves.
Ultimately, water and our relationship with it is a curious gestalt of magic and paradox. Like the Suntelia Aion described by the Greeks, water cuts recursive patterns of creative destruction through the landscape, an ouroboros remembering. It changes, yet stays the same, shifting its face with the climate. It wanders the earth like a gypsy, stealing from where it is needed and giving whimsically where it isn’t wanted; aggressive yet yielding. Life-giving yet dangerous. Water is the well-spring of life. Yet, it is the River Styx that leads the dead to Hades. The annual flooding of the Nile River served as an ancient Egyptian archetype for resurrection, and was represented by Osiris, the god of death and regeneration. Christian baptism by full immersion, then being raised out of the water of a river or pool, symbolizes burial (with the Lord) and rebirth.
Water is a shape-shifter.
Our connection with water and its journey embraces the entire water cycle, from tapping groundwater and torrential rains to great diversions, transformations and everything in between.
The four oldest civilizations sprang from the fertile floodplains of some of the world’s greatest rivers. Mesopotamia (now Iraq) had the Tigris and Euphrates; the Harrapan culture (now Pakistan) had the Indus, shared with India; India also had the Ganges, Yamuna, and Brahmaputra, all originating in the Himalayas. China had the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers that came to them from the Tibetan plateau; and Egypt had the fertile Nile River.
Early Garamantian (Libyan) farmers flourished for thousands of years in the Sahara Desert by using gravity to successfully mine and transport ground water through an elaborate underground irrigation system. Water drove the societal hierarchy, taxation, and business of the ancient Egyptians who ran their advanced social system on the resources provided by the Nile River valley—rich in volcanic minerals from Ethiopia. In India’s Cherrapunji, the people had adapted to the rhythms of extreme abundance and scarcity in a monsoon ecosystem. The ancient Khmer of Angkor (Cambodia) dug reservoirs and an underground irrigation system to store water from the monsoon rains throughout the drought season. Undoubtedly as a result of the water-harnessing ingenuity of the Khmer, Angkor became the largest pre-industrial city in the world. However, the impact of water management to sustain a growing population, along with deforestation practices and other watershed alterations, eventually led to erosion that choked the system with sediment and rendered it unmanageable. By the 15th century, Angkor collapsed—a victim of its own success. The rise of Earth’s great civilizations may be defined through their methods of adapting to volatile water supplies; their downfall may similarly be defined through their failure to continue that adaptation, when during lean times they outstripped their resources.
“Ten thousand years ago, we lived at the whim of the water cycle,” geologist Iain Stewart tells us in the BBC program How the Earth Changed History: Water. “Since then,” says Stewart, “we have harnessed the power of rivers to advance our civilizations. We have extracted ground water from the depths of the most unlikely places. And we have learned to redirect and store water on a massive scale. Today we have unprecedented power over the planet’s water. But one thing hasn’t changed: there’s still only a finite amount of water on Earth. It seems to me that water is the Achilles’ heel of our modern civilization; it’s the one resource, more than any other, with the potential to limit our ambition. The fundamental limits of the water cycle are still there. But the lesson of history is that the most successful civilizations learn to adapt to those limits.”
In his 2010 book Elixir, Brian Fagan tells the story of humanity’s ingenious and utilitarian—and often abusive—relationship with water throughout the ages. It is a three-act story of humanity’s separation, transformation and return—with water. Fagan describes three ages of water that span five millennia beginning with its sacred treatment in ancient Mesopotamia and leading to its eventual commodification, particularly during the Industrial Revolution. Now entering its third age, water remains poised for humanity’s enlightenment—and our return to a different relationship with water. As the global population approaches eight billion and ancient aquifers run dry, Fagan suggests that, “to solve the water crisis of the future, we may need to [return to the] water ethos of our ancestors.” According to evolutionary biologist and futurist Elisabet Sahtouris, humanity crossed a tipping point when tribes built the first city cooperatives to worship and trade. Cities, like nucleated cells that evolved from prokaryotes, became new entities that needed to evolve from youthful competition to mature cooperation. Now, after thousands of years of national and corporate empire-building we have reached a tipping point in planetary exploitation, “where enmities are more expensive in all respects than friendly collaboration.”
Scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell describes the three-act hero’s journey whose roots come from the Ancient Greek play. The three acts correspond to three stages of a character’s and a story’s evolution: (1) separation, (2) transformation, and (3) return. All great stories follow these three acts to tell the tale of development, transcendence, and resolution. Water naturally follows this cyclical journey: (1) separating from its source, (2) transforming itself and its environment as it travels; and (3) returning to its source to undergo another journey. This is our story too.
Water’s journey is really our journey, and it is ultimately our journey Home.
This article is an excerpt from “Water Is…” for sale worldwide by Pixl Press (ISBN 978-0-9811012-4-8) May 10, 2016. Nina Munteanu is a limnologist and author of eco-fiction. She teaches writing at the University of Toronto, Canada.