Wasting water like it is money

The serious issue of water scarcity has often been side-lined owing to massive industrialisation and “corporate greed”. While we destroy the apparently “indestructible” water resources, Koli Mitra wonders about the future of such an endeavour …

Maybe someday humans will face a scarcity of solar energy.

Does that sound far-fetched?  Well, yeah, it’s a rhetorical device and it’s meant to be hyperbolic. But is it impossible or just extremely improbable? Exactly how improbable is it? Do we have any rational basis for gauging that?

Let’s fast forward to a distant future. No, not billions of years into the future, when the sun enters the declining phase of its natural life, but to a time when the sun is still very much in its prime and it’s conceivable that human civilisation still exists… maybe just a hundred thousand years from now… or two.

Imagine that humans have colonised the solar system. They have settlements on Mars, Europa, Titan and any number of places where perhaps they’ve discovered at least some of the right ingredients in plentiful supply (oxygen, water, nitrogen, etc.) and figured out how to manufacture the rest. Maybe they have such sophisticated methods of “terraforming” (the hypothetical process of transforming inhospitable, barren worlds into habitable places for humans) that no solid surfaces anywhere – on moons, asteroids, icy dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt – are left unpopulated. Maybe they are basically strip-mining minerals and other resources off of every natural object in the solar system, even dipping into the deep atmosphere of the gas giants or drilling into the mantles of the ice giants. They might have fully life-supporting spaceships or space stations – basically artificial planetoids – dotting the entire expanse of the solar system. Maybe they have a swarm of them creating a sort of humongous, semi-fluid orb, 20 or 30 billion kilometers in diameter, with the sun at its core. Maybe they’ve redistributed the mass in the solar system to such a great degree that some of the smaller subsystems are starting to experience local gravitational or orbital disturbances – and maybe that problem requires some extremely energy-intensive mechanism to counteract.

Life in such a civilisation might depend on dizzyingly power-guzzling technology beyond anything our 21st century minds can conjure up in their wildest fantasies or nightmares. Can we say for sure that even the sun’s resources might not begin to feel inadequate for these people’s needs? Can we say for sure our species will never become technologically powerful enough (and demanding enough) to cause some damage to the sun and the solar system in unimaginable ways the way we have clearly done to the once almighty earth?

Right now, all of this is just a fanciful – some would say fatuous – thought experiment. But the question of water scarcity might have seemed similarly absurd just a couple of centuries ago, during the infancy of the industrial revolution, when we set ourselves on this apparently irreversible path of doing everything on an increasingly massive scale and at an increasingly fast pace.

It’s easy to accuse our forbearers of imprudence on this issue, but the flowing waters of earth  – including fresh water – were so abundant, so ancient, so awesomely more powerful than anything we mere mortals could throw at it, that it must have seemed infinite for all imaginable purposes, much like sunlight seems to us today.  So much that despite water’s critical importance to our survival, humans have always considered it as utterly expendable. Our languages betray that attitude. We say things like “going through money like water” or, in Bengali, “as cheap as water.”

This is actually at the heart of the problem. It has to do with our basic inability to discern what is truly “valuable” from the elaborate illusions of value we have created out of greed and economic systems built on greed. We exploit the earth with no respect or appreciation for it. We take for granted what it offers naturally but lust after what we must force out of it. Francis Bacon basically articulated this philosophy well before the start of the modern industrial revolution when he advocated enslaving nature and “torturing her secrets out of her.”

That’s pretty close to what we’ve done. We have so much hubris that we act like the world belongs to us rather than the other way around. Also, we don’t know how to step back and ask if there is anything we haven’t considered.

Science and progress and knowledge are wonderful things, but true knowledge serves wisdom, not whim and addictive self-aggrandizement. And wisdom, as Socrates pointed out, means being aware that there are things we don’t know and can’t foresee, and consequently it implies a willingness to halt or even reverse the processes we set in motion, as necessary.

Our ancestors can perhaps be forgiven for not having guessed how much industrialisation would devastate our natural resources. But as we became more and more aware, we didn’t change course at all. We forged ahead full steam, with blinders on. Our relationship with water illustrates this perfectly.

Water, in some sense, really is “infinite”— in that it is technically inexhaustible. It is limited in quantity, but it’s a fully renewable resource, unlike, say, fossil fuels (which we’re rapidly using up) or plants and animals (many of which we’re driving to extinction by depriving them of the habitats and resources they need to survive and reproduce).  But water never really gets “used up.” The total amount of water contained in the earth’s hydrosphere doesn’t change. What changes is the water’s form, location, or condition.

More than 96 % of the earth’s water content is in “storage” in the oceans, where it is mixed with a lot of salt, making it perfect for marine life but practically “useless” from the perspective of land-based organisms.  The remainder (less than 4 %) is dispersed in freshwater lakes, rivers, ponds, creeks, ice and snow deposits, underground reservoirs, suspended in the atmosphere as water vapour, spread out through soil and rock, and constituting a sizable portion of the bodies of plants and animals (human adults being made of 60 to 70 percent water – babies, even more).  The earth’s water system or “hydrosphere” continually undergoes a cycle of melting, freezing, evaporating, precipitating, sublimating and condensing. Melting ice and flowing rivers drain a lot of fresh water into the salty oceans, but the sun evaporates lots of ocean water into the atmosphere, which eventually condenses and rains as freshwater on to land and inland bodies of water. One of the happy results of this process is that the amount of fresh water available for life on land gets renewed pretty steadily.

But we humans have changed all that. We’ve been going through our fresh water like it was money; wasting this precious, life-giving resource as if it were as “cheap” as that fictitious thing of false value, which we can create and destroy to suit our needs and desires.

Our mammoth industries and agriculture guzzle up water much faster than the hydrospheric cycle can replenish it. We dump pesticides and medical waste and industrial waste into freshwater bodies. Instead of allowing rainwater to replenish groundwater or to collect in natural pools or to be taken up by plant-roots, as it would have done in the natural water cycle, we collect and drain it through the same gutters that carry away our sewage. We have razed rainforests and “reclaimed” wetlands (and even parts of seas) in order to build towns and industrial parks and shopping districts. In the process, we’ve thrown off the weather patterns – and consequently the operation of the water cycle – in those areas. Meanwhile, we’ve built glittering cities and resorts in deserts by diverting large volumes of water not only to fill drinking water tanks, but also to hydrate lush parks and swimming pools and luxury “tropical” gardens and waterslides and public fountains and artificial waterfalls (but this water must always be imported, since the lack of nearby weather-making apparatus like lakes and forests means these artificial oases will never attract enough rain to be naturally hydrated).

One of the most severe examples how large-scale water redistribution devastates the water system is the destruction of the Aral Sea. By diverting major rivers for irrigation purposes, humans have starved the Aral Sea of the waters that used to feed it. Once the world’s fourth largest fresh water lake, the Aral Sea has dwindled to less than a tenth of its original size and this remnant lake is now as salty as ocean water (the rise in the salinity comes from a decrease in water volume and the resulting increase the proportion of dissolved salts in the water).

Perversely, though we treat water – the asset with a natural value – with so little regard, we do seem to prize it highly as an exploitable commodity for making money. At any given time, a lot of water stays locked up for industrial use. Industrial development of the last two hundred years has steadily driven up the commercial demand for water. The latest assault of industry on the world’s fresh water supplies is hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” to extract oil and natural gas locked inside sedimentary rock formations (shale). This process requires so much water that it is fanning major conflicts between energy companies engaged in fracking and the local communities who live near sites where shale deposits are found.

And, then there are, of course, the political abuses of water. Rich communities can divert water from their poorer neighbors. Corporate greed, perhaps the single most significant cause of the global fresh water scarcity, is now inspiring ingenious ways to monetise that same scarcity by trying to convince governments to let them buy up the rights to water resources so that people who have always used certain water sources must begin paying corporations for the same water. A few years ago, corporations had convinced several countries – like Bolivia, Ecuador, and Morocco – to securitise or even outright privatise the “water assets” in certain cities, so that even collecting rainwater for personal use would be treated as the acquisition (or appropriation) of a commodity for which a person would be required to pay the corporate owner or lessee (depending on the structure of the deal that transferred the water rights). Popular uproar successfully thwarted those plans… at least for the time being.

So there’s greed, but there’s also ignorance and apathy and complacence. The vast majority of us don’t gain anything – even in the short term – from environmental devastation. But we can’t be bothered to deal with it. In fact, we would rather buy into deceptively comfortable fallacies than face what Al Gore famously called an “inconvenient truth.”  And many others of us don’t have the education or exposure to understand the problem.

My friend Saurav asked Rekha, a young woman who cleans his house, to turn off all the taps tightly so as not to be wasteful. “Wasteful?” Rekha retorted contemptuously. “What do you have leaking out of your faucets… gold? Come on…it’s just water!”  “Well, there’s a worldwide water shortage” Saurav told her, but she laughed him off.  “There is no water shortage,” she informed us in earnest. “In fact there is too much water.  In my village, there is a flood almost every year.” Saurav threw me an amused glance. But, I got to thinking: I’ve heard exactly this brand of reasoning before, from people who are older and much more educated than Rekha (not to mention some who are orders of magnitude more powerful than Rekha, Saurav and me combined).  I once heard an engineer dismiss an ecologist’s argument that eating lower on the food chain wastes less energy with this gem of a counter argument: “you can’t ‘waste energy’ because energy can’t be created or destroyed.”  And then, there’s the perennially popular refrain during any climate debate: “The earth is not getting warmer; we just had the coldest winter on record!”

Well, it would be awfully nice if the laws of physics could be applied simplistically without regard to the messy complexities of biology and technological processes imposed by human activity. It would be great if the fact of these monstrous winters we’ve been having in some parts of the world was actual evidence that the polar ice caps weren’t melting. And it sure as heck would be peachy if floodwater was the same as drinking water.

Passionate rationalist. Bleeding-heart moderate. Geek. Afflicted with a "language fetish". Koli practiced law on Wall Street until her lifelong love affair with writing demanded its rightful place as her primary occupation.

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