Water: Sustainer of Life

It has been said that this will be a century of water wars, not only to vie for the resource among nations, but using water as an instrument to wage war

Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

We take water for granted. It’s only when we don’t get it that we realise its importance. But under normal circumstances, when just at the turn of a tap clean water flows and we make use of it, we spare no thought for its value to life, to us, or that 1 in 3 people in the world live in areas where there is no safe drinking water, according to the United Nations. Because of this unawareness, we have a tendency to waste water – opening the tap at full flow, when we could just as well make do with a reduced flow, or closing the tap in between when we are, for example, doing the first thing in the morning, namely brushing our teeth.

World Water Day. Photo – c.ndtvimg.com

Each one of us can multiply many times the occasions or situations where we act so irresponsibly and thus waste water when millions of others are going with less of it, or have none at all. In fact, again according to the UN, at the rate we are going, by 2025, half of the global population will be living in areas where water is scarce. In fact, it has been said that this will be a century of water wars, not only to vie for the resource among nations, but using water as an instrument to wage war. By the erection of dams for example, across water sources that irrigate contiguous countries without first discussing and signing mutual agreements on equitable sharing and other related issues.

In many other aspects of life too we, especially in the developed world, act very unconscionably, and we need to be prodded liked little children to behave properly – unfortunately, but that’s the reality isn’t it? Otherwise why would there be World Days – a device used by the UN to goad us into an awareness of a major issue that concerns all of humanity, and that it hopes will make us get rid of some of our selfishness. But also assume proper responsibility not only for ourselves and our family and community, but take a broader sweep to consider other human beings too.

And so the world observes World Water Day on March 22. It aims at informing people about the significance of fresh water and sustainable management of its resources. This follows from a UN General Assembly resolution adopted on December 22, 1992, which later declared March 22 as World Water Day, and is ‘celebrated’ around the world since 1993. The focus of this day, according to the UN website is to ‘support the achievement of sustainable development goal (SDG) 6: water and sanitation for all by 2030.’ 

Whenever I come across the term ‘for all by…date’ my mind goes back to the ‘Health for All by 2000’ of WHO that came out in the wake of the first WHO conference on Primary Health Care held in 1979 at Alma Ata in Kazakhstan, where this call was made. And it did not materialize.  As was the case for similar calls made in respect of other issues. Hence the Sustainable Development Goals, which attempted to set more realistic and reasonable targets. But even these were not achieved, so in a manner of speaking the goal posts kept being moved. The reasons for under-achievement are complex and multiple, but include a large dose of global politics and local politicking, besides economic, social and financial obstacles and constraints. However, goals must be set, otherwise there will be no progress at all.

As for the Significance of Water, who can deny that ‘water plays a key role in socio-economic development. Providing vital services to the human population, water is needed for human health and livelihood. Without its existence, we can’t think of food, oxygen, and the human population.’

But we also need reminding that ‘though 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, only 2.5 percent of it is fresh and is good for humans to consume. Though the natural recycling process has kept the amount of freshwater fairly constant on Earth, the exploding human population has increased the demand and competition.  Even if you don’t believe it, water scarcity is real. And, our inefficiency of using water sustainably can cost too much to the future generation.’

And that is why the theme of World Water Day 2021 is ‘Valuing Water’ and highlights the importance of conserving water and its value. As the UN website says, ‘The value of water is about much more than its price – water has enormous and complex value for our households, food, culture, health, education, economics and the integrity of our natural environment. If we overlook any of these values, we risk mismanaging this finite, irreplaceable resource.’

Scientifically, we know that life as we know it cannot exist without water, nor can it be sustained without water. We’ll leave the scientists to pursue their search for the origin of life in the watery matrix. Our focus as common mortals should be to be concerned about how water sustains life – and that means all aspects of our lives and living wherever we are, and how we can help in ensuring that this is done as efficiently as possible. And this does not demand of us rocket science, we only have to activate our common sense to understand what we have to do: use only as much as we need of potable water i.e. do not waste, and secondly collect natural water for other uses such as gardening, cleaning etc. We must extend the harvesting of rain water in households.

The value and importance of water has been dealt with in ancient Indian literature comprising the Vedas (the oldest heritage of mankind), Brāhmaṇas, Upaniṣads, Purāṇas, and Smṛtis, where it has been treated spiritually, philosophically, cosmologically, medically, and poetically. Water is regarded as the primordial substance from which the universe came into being, and is considered as occupying the highest place amongst the five basic elements pañcamahābhūtas: ākāśa (ether, substratum, space), vāyu (air), teja or agni (radiation, energy, or fire), āpa (water), and pṛthivī (Earth). These five bhūtas constitute the physical universe. Air is said to have been generated from space, fire from space, water from fire, and earth from water.

In other cultures, water has been described as the elixir of life, an elixir being a mythical, mythological or magical liquid that confers immortality which alchemists searched for in vain. So much the better really, isn’t it? Who wants immortality of the physical kind?

No, we don’t need water as an elixir, and should not regard it as such either. It suffices that we regard it as that which, beyond all else, is vital to sustain not only our lives but all lives on earth – plant, animal, human – with which we are inextricably linked in an interdependence based on  networks that evolution has established over millions of years. And that we must do our utmost to learn about and to preserve at all costs.

Water is life, period.

* Published in print edition on 23 March 2021

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