By Dr Anthony Turton
Mother Nature at Work
Floating in the lifeless infinity of outer space is one blue planet; the only one with life on it because there is water in all three forms – solid, liquid and vapor.
Water makes Earth habitable to all forms of biological life and therefore its history is inexorably connected to ours. The volume of water we have on Earth today is the same as we had when dinosaurs roamed free. This water has been recycled an infinite number of times by Earth’s ecosystems, which act as a filter. Today when one drinks water it is true to say that it went through a dinosaur’s kidney 65 million years ago. Water has been recycled, reprocessed and redistributed globally via an invisible process that is known as the hydrological cycle. This is Mother Nature at work and this work has been active for 4.6 billion years of our evolutionary history.
If we take that 4.6 Billion years and convert it into a twenty four hour time clock, then human beings only arrived 30 seconds before midnight at 23:59:30. We are thus newcomers as a species. About 1,000 years ago we counted for a mere half a billion on the entire planet. This number slowly grew to 1 billion over the next 800 years when the Industrial Revolution started all of our current development trends. By 1930 the global population of humans had doubled to two billion as a result of the prosperity arising from the Industrial Revolution. In 1960 we had three billion humans on the planet, and today we have passed the seven billion mark.
What Happens Now?
So what happens when a finite volume of water is confronted with an exponential growth in the number of people depending on that same water as life support provider? If the volume of water supporting a given population is constant, while that population doubles (and then doubles again), what happens?
The answer to that question lies in the systems and processes that transport water where it is needed; however these processes defy nature’s laws. Nature dictates that water must flow downhill in response to the laws of gravity, dissolve mineral salts in response to the laws of chemistry and evaporate into the wind in response to the laws of physics. All these processes ignore the impact of mankind. But as the human race has become the dominant species on this planet, the very laws of gravity, chemistry and physics have been challenged.
“[People] need to start living their lives by the basic rules of stewardship: respect, reduce, reuse, recycle, renew, regenerate, re-invigorate, restore, repair and revitalise water.”
We have pushed rivers around to the extent that very few now flow unhindered into the oceans as they did just a century ago before the advent of steel-reinforced concrete that enabled us as a species to become, as Rene Descartes once said: “Masters and owners of nature.”
Current estimates are that by the year 2025 1.8 billion people will be living in conditions of absolute water scarcity (defined as an annual per capita freshwater availability of less than 1,000 m³ per annum); whereas a staggering two-thirds of the total global population will be living under conditions defined as water stressed (defined as an annual per capita freshwater availability of 1,700 m³ per annum).
In Zimbabwe, Harare as a city serves as a powerful proxy for the narrative on water and human survival. Like many other major cities in Southern Africa it is not built on a river, a lake or a seashore; but rather on a continental watershed divide. The same is true of Gaborone in Botswana, Johannesburg and Pretoria in South Africa, Windhoek in Namibia and Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. What this means is that massive investment has been made into engineering systems to pump water uphill. But that is only part of the story, because once that water flows through the city, it returns back to the rivers as waste water. If the waste water treatment works are dysfunctional then raw sewage flows back into those rivers, and by virtue of the fact that they are located along the continental watershed divide, this means that the deteriorating quality of the water cascades downstream affecting all water-dependent systems between the source and the sea.
What makes Harare even more of a proxy for the region is the fact that the drinking water supply is located downstream of the city. This means that sewage return flows go straight back into the drinking water system. This becomes more complex however, because when political systems start to fail and service delivery collapses, so too does the water treatment plant that cleans up the sewage and the many pumping stations that move the water in defiance of gravity. When the political systems fail the whole city starts to enter a state of decline. The Chinese have a symbol for a river and a different symbol for a dyke that controls the river. When put together these two symbols become a new word meaning ‘political order’.
The Other Part of the Story
But this is only part of the story, because humans are innovative and so they learn how to adapt to this failing infrastructure induced by an ailing political system. Water becomes the one thing that unites people in the face of all other adversities. This is the real story and Water is a spiritual entity as much as it is an environmental resource. Water impacts human dignity as poor people seek to use water in the performance of their sanitation functions. It causes people to speak in dual tones when they fear surveillance by the political police. Water can act as a focal point of opposition to government as service delivery fails through nepotism, corruption, patronage and incompetence.
As a water sector professional and thought leader in the water/risk space, I am of the firm opinion that we are transitioning from an old paradigm that was based on the relative abundance of water. In that old paradigm water was generally abused, seldom respected and almost always consumed and then discarded as waste. The new paradigm that is starting to emerge is about water as a fundamental constraint. This sees humans becoming custodians of water, conscious of their stewardship role as “masters and owners of nature”. If we respect water and return it back to the hydrological cycle for renewal, exactly as has happened over the last 4.6 billion years of Earth’s evolution, then we can survive and even live with a quality of life that is desirable.
To do this ordinary people need to become aware of their dependence on water. They need to become outraged at what they see happening to water and then they need to channel that energy into the desire for renewal of the social contract that exists between society and nature. Then they need to start living their lives by the basic rules of stewardship: respect, reduce, reuse, recycle, renew, regenerate, re-invigorate, restore, repair and revitalise water.
Water is far too important a resource to trivialise and fight about. The true power of water comes from its capacity to sustain life, and its ability to recycle itself. In religious ceremonies it is used to signify rebirth and forgiveness. This is an incredible story told in a simple eloquence that belies the eternal truth.
So, while water moves though time and space, obeying the eternal laws of nature, we have caused it to flow uphill to power and money. The question is how sustainable is that? What do we need to do as a species to continue to enjoy the quality of life that safe water gives us? How do we extend this privilege to the growing number of people who live a life of poverty and despair?
Floating in the lifeless infinity of outer space is the only planet covered in water. Let us marvel at that and start a new journey that takes us to a better place from which we are emerging. In Botswana the currency is the Pula; few know that this means “rain”. More importantly, when one is greeted with the word “pula” it means “may you be blessed with abundance associated with rain.”
The views expressed in ecoView are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Ecology Global Network. EGN does not verify the accuracy or science of these articles.