Two abandoned ships in the former Aral Sea, near Aral, Kazakhstan.

No matter where you stand on the climate-change debate, one thing that’s being acknowledged globally is the growing problem of water.

Too much of it. Not enough of it. How to share it. How to keep it pure, or, if contaminated, how to purify it.

With the Arctic icecaps, remote cloud forest streams and even deepest ocean realms now showing signs of silting and man-made chemical contamination, life on the planet, including our own, is in peril. Add in the increasing demands placed upon the fresh-water resource by agriculture, industry and human thirst, plus the modern short-sighted fever of wetland-destruction to make way for housing and development, and the picture gets bleaker.

One thing we’re finally learning is that everything, including our global water supply, is intricately interconnected:

“Now we are again called on to broaden the perspectives of water science and management. The motivation comes from recent research showing that water is interconnected on a planetary level more tightly and in more ways than previously appreciated.” (Managing the Global Water System, Joseph Alcamo, The Princeton Guide to Ecology.)


Which begs a new mindset:

“Why, in so many places on this planet, are rivers drying up, lakes shrinking and water tables falling? The answer, in part, is simple: We have been trying to meet insatiable demands by continuously expanding a finite freshwater supply. In the long run, of course, that is a losing proposition. It is impossible to expand a finite supply indefinitely, and in many parts of the world, the ‘long run’ has arrived.” (Why We Need a Water Ethic, Sandra L. Postel, Water Matters.)

Fresh water accounts for only 3% of the world’s total water volume. The rest is saltwater, crucial for abundant life but not suited for drinking, agriculture, raising livestock or most industrial uses. Even if it were feasible to economically desalinate enough sea water to use for human consumption and use, we’d be robbing Peter to pay Paul, as our global fisheries and coral reefs, for instance, are already being decimated by over-exploitation, habitat destruction, pollution and possibly a changing climate.

The algae species that live in the ocean are also vital for a majority of the oxygen produced on Earth (70-80%). So, we’d better tread that line with care.

So the quest goes on to find more ways to collect, expand and recycle our tiny freshwater reserves. In many ways’ humans are becoming more clever in stretching this shrinking resource to its limits.

“Yet something is missing from this prescription (of recycling and more efficient water usage methods), something that is less tangible but, in the final analysis, more important. It has to do with modern society’s disconnection from nature’s web of life and from water’s most fundamental role as the basis for that life. In our technologically sophisticated world, we no longer grasp the need for the wild river, the blackwater swamp, or even the diversity of species collectively performing nature’s work.” (Why We Need a Water Ethic, Sandra L. Postel, Water Matters.)

In a beautifully conceived and laid out new book spotlighting 18 authors in chapters covering industrial agriculture, dams, pollution and human rights, (Water Matters, edited by Tara Lohan, AlterNet Books), such sticky political and holistic ethical considerations come under the microscope.

The book ‘had me’ at the very first page. In the introduction, Tara Lohan takes us on a breath-taking and poignant climb through Utah’s Zion National Park, and beautifully laces the entire crisis into perspective for us. From grassroots to politics, government, corporate and religious vantage points, the global issue of water management and reverence is examined from all angles.

Chock full of charts, photos, art, poems, spotlights and checklists, Water Matters is also engaging and easy on the eyes. Handy ‘call to action’ charts urge us to chuck the bottled water habit, xeriscape, set up residential ‘grey water’ systems and even start composting (see how everything’s interconnected?)

Toward that end, Alcamo, in Managing the Global Water System (Princeton Guide to Ecology) reports on the increasing use of Remote Earth Observations (satellites) to monitor our global water network, not just by watching glaciers but for measuring Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity.

One thing I found oddly lacking in Water Matters is a notable reference to deforestation, its impact on worldwide desertification, atmospheric moisture and water availability in the environment. It’s well known that forests, especially ancient ones, create a unique soil structure, retain and respirate air and water, shelter the planet’s surface from extreme winds and temperature and are strong influencers of local climate. While many countries are now struggling to exterminate exotic or introduced non-native species of trees that might be less efficient (greedier) in water usage than native ones, why was there no mention of restoring indigenous forests? This issue is vital enough its surprising a chapter wasn’t devoted to it.

The Princeton Guide to Ecology, on the other hand, makes numerous references to deforestation and forest fragmentation in relation to water and moisture conservation. Too bad this exhaustive and expertly written reference is probably “too much book” for the average casual reader.

The photo of massive deforestation accompanying this article is not from either book yet it is highly relevant. “On Madagascar’s highland plateau, a massive transformation occurred that eliminated virtually all the heavily forested vegetation in the period 1970 to 2000. The slash and burn agriculture eliminated about ten percent of the total country’s native biomass and converted it to a barren wasteland. These effects were from overpopulation and the necessity to feed poor indigenous peoples, but the adverse effects included widespread gully erosion that in turn produced heavily silted rivers that “run red” decades after the deforestation. This eliminated a large amount of usable fresh water and also destroyed much of the riverine ecosystems of several large west-flowing rivers. Several fish species have been driven to the edge of extinction and some, such as, the disturbed Tokios, coral reef formations in the Indian Ocean are effectively lost.

“In October 2008, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, chairman and former chief executive of Nestlé, warned that the production of biofuels will further deplete the world’s water supply.” (Wikipedia)

Yet another example of that interconnectedness. Each and every action we take impacts every other life and system on the planet, including that big bug-a-boo that everyone senses but is afraid to discuss: unchecked human population growth. No solution in the world will work sustainably if we continue populating the planet all out of proportion to its capacity to support life on Earth. The human race, then, has some deep soul-searching to do.

One of my favorite references in Water Matters is to Christopher D. Stone’s famous essay “Should Trees Have Legal Standing? Towards Legal Rights for Natural Objects.” It was this which influenced the 1972 Sierra Club v. Morton case in which Court Justice William O. Douglas wrote “contemporary public concern for protecting nature’s ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation . . . The river, for example, is the living symbol of all the life it sustains or nourishes – the fish, aquatic insects, water ouzels, otter, fisher, deer, elk, bear, and all the other animals, including man, who are dependent on it or who enjoy it for its sight, its sound, or its life. The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it.”

You can get your copy of Water Matters, edited by Tara Lohan, here.
The massive, scholarly Princeton Guide to Ecology edited by Simon Levin, is available here.

Advertisements