Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Water Slide

Easter weekend was marked by several global events. It began with the first day of spring on March 20th, followed by Good Friday, World Water Day on Saturday and finally Easter Sunday. This culmination of religious, political and astronomical events provides a tremendous opportunity to reflect on the environmental, historical and religious significance of water.

The story of water is the story of life itself. It is also a unique story. In the known universe, the Earth is the only planet that we know for sure is blessed with water. Seen from the velvet blackness of space, our home planet looks like a blue jewel and perhaps should have more appropriately been named Water.

We know that we have the same amount of water now on Earth as we did at the time of creation. We don't have a cosmic store that we can run out and get more from. It is a finite resource. Water is an essential element of life. A healthy human can live for a month without food, but will die in less than a week without water. We live by the grace of water. Only the air that we breathe is more critical to our survival.

So let's begin at the beginning. The biblical story of Adam and Eve tells of our fall from grace. In our quest for knowledge we were banished from an earthly paradise. While there has been much debate about the truth of this story, I believe it to be a parable - perhaps the most important parable in the Bible. Genesis tells us that God gave us dominion over all other living creatures. With that dominion came a responsibility to care and nurture God's creation. Unfortunately, as the centuries have proven, we haven’t made very good stewards.

In his book, A Short History of Everything, scholar Ronald Wright explains that if the Garden of Eden had an address, it was likely the tiny settlement of Jericho near the Dead Sea. By 6000 BC there is evidence this settlement was abandoned because of widespread deforestation and erosion caused by human activity.

Wright continues to map the migration of our ancestors to the great flood plains of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers - an area known as Mesopotamia. What's ironic is that this fertile delta was comprised of the soils that had been washed away by erosion out of Eden. These recycled soils from Eden were Nature's way of giving our ancestors a second chance. But unfortunately they didn't fare much better there.

Swamps were drained, floods controlled and civilized man began his agricultural pursuits in earnest. By 2000 BC, the scribes of the day were reporting that the earth was turning white with salt. The problem was the very thing that made the land fertile in the first place - irrigation. In the natural cycle, water rinses salt from rocks and carries it out to sea. When water is diverted for irrigation, particularly on to very dry land, a lot of the water evaporates leaving the salt behind.

As the lands of Mesopotamia grew more and more saline, empires moved further and further upstream, each one falling to the same fate. Today many of those lands are encompassed by modern Iraq - a country where half of the irrigated land is saline - the highest proportion in the world.

And so it has continued for thousands of years. Despite centuries of evidence that it really isn't sustainable, today a whopping 65 percent of our water is used for irrigation. The United Nations estimates that it takes about 3,000 litres of water to produce our daily food ration, about 1,000 times more than we need for drinking.

This goes way beyond unsustainable agricultural practices. It is estimated that in North America the combined use of water translates into 4,900 litres of water per person, while in other parts of the world the UN reports that 1.1 billion people lack adequate access to clean drinking water. An additional 3 billion people don't have enough water for basic sanitation, cooking and washing.


The UN estimates that by 2025 as much as two-thirds of the world's population will be living in conditions of serious water shortage. To find out more about the UN's Water for Life Decade (2005 – 2015), and World Water Day, www.worldwaterday.org.

Ronald Wright's book, A Short History of Everything, began as a CBC Massey Lecture. To listen to the original lecture, or for more on his published work, search www.cbc.ca.


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