Water – Then, Today and Tomorrow
This week we mark World Water Day, which was determined under a United Nations resolution 21 years ago, in 1992. This day celebrates the precious resource that sustains life as we know it; a day in which we remind ourselves that water mustn’t be taken for granted.
True, people today are already aware of the necessity of water in sustaining the biological and physiological aspects of life. But what other things does water affect? What was it like in the past? What has evolved over the years? What will be the fate of this vital resource in the future?
Water and religious faiths
Water has been a constant motif in social, cultural and technological development, and in the evolution of peoples, communities and civilization. Water has always been at the core of social interaction, ritual practices, faith and religion.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth …”, “And the Spirit of God hovering over the waters”. The Bible mentions that God separated the waters, which, according to the Jewish faith, resulted in the beginning of life: “Let the waters soul.” The evolution theory suggests that the first forms of life appeared in a marine environment and then emerged on the mainland.
In various cultures, water is linked to life – it is a source of life and growth. According to Chinese belief, water symbolizes wealth. When personified, water symbolizes various traits like the ability to adapt to changing situations. In Judaism, water is a sign of blessing and fertility as described in the promise of God to the Israelites.
In various religions, water serves as a purifying cleanser- body and soul. The biblical story of Noah’s Ark and the Flood describes how the world was cleansed from its sins with water toward a new beginning. In Islam, worshippers must wash themselves before their five daily prayers, while in Judaism; people must wash their hands before each meal. Buddhists are also commanded to cleanse their body with water before prayers, because external, earthly cleansing is the first step toward purification of the soul, according to their faith. Temples in Japan have water bowls where worshippers wash their hands as an act of purification before prayer.
In Thailand, New Year is celebrated with a water festival where they wash Buddha with water, in the hopes that God will bless them with a rainy year. Hindus in India – Masses of worshippers flock to the holy rivers gathering to purify their body and soul and ensure a better place in the next life.
Water, as we know, did not skip Christianity, under which the baptism of newborns symbolizes their acceptance into Christendom.
Body and soul
Behind the familiar statement “There’s nothing like a fragrant hot bath to relieve the day’s tensions” lays an important fact: Numerous water sources with various minerals and salt qualities were and still are attributed with healing properties. Much of the Roman culture, centered on baths and spas, also served as social get-togethers or “housed” the hatching of political plots. The well was the center of life in ancient eras. Water pumping was considered the traditional role of women, and it was there by the well that conversations and local gossip were shared.
Development of cultures
Ancient settlements were built and developed near water sources, lakes and along rivers. Water provided the basic needs of drinking, washing, agriculture and trade. The Nabateans, the ancient people who lived between the 4th century BC and 1st century AD were called “Kings of the Desert”, thanks to advanced water “technologies” for their time that enabled them to make a living and develop agriculture in the desert. One of the first projects of King David, after naming Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, was the “Shiloah Tunnel”- excavating a tunnel which would ensure water supply to the capital.
Waterways served as important trade routes that connected distant regions and continents. Countries that built a strong Navy were considered superpowers, like the Phoenicians in ancient times and countries like the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain in the middle of the second millennium. In later centuries, artificial water channels were dug across continents, like Europe and China, for commercial use. Clearly, control over marine routes was (and still is) an economic, political and defensive advantage.
Development of Water Technologies
Water technologies have been developed to meet various needs from ancient times to the present. We must bear in mind that technology is measured through the prism of time. Innovative technology that met the requirements of a certain era became obsolete as years went by. A striking example of that are the enormous aqueducts left by the Romans, which were considered cutting-edge technology at that time.
In our time, water has a completely different pace, which is significantly slower. All technologies result from an existing need, and existing water needs will only increase in the future.
In the middle of the 19th century, the link between illness and drinking water was established for the first time. The direct cause of illness was sewage contamination of the water sources from which Londoners drew their drinking water, but the bigger picture was urbanization, population growth and industrial revolution that led to huge changes and contamination was one of their byproducts. Today, the world still faces the same challenges and gaps.
In underdeveloped countries, contaminated drinking water is still a major cause of death. At the turn of the third millennium, the World Health Organization set itself 10 Millennium Development Goals, with Goal #7 defined as increased access to water in these regions, reduced water-related illness, and improved sanitation and hygiene. 13 years on, the situation remains almost the same: 1.1 billion people lack access to water within one kilometer from their homes, one in eight people in the world has no access to clean water, and if that’s not enough – 3.3 million people die from water-related diseases each year.
In industrialized countries like China, despite their existing know-how, people report every day hundreds of industrial pollution incidents that damage the quality of water. As long as demand for improvement doesn’t come from end-consumers around the world, chances for improvement are slim.
Desalination technologies in the 60s were regarded as a global vision that would bring salvation in terms of water shortage. Despite extensive knowledge and established technology, the dream is still far from realization even today.
Technologies of recovering waste water for agricultural use, and recycling gray water for home use are already in place, but are still far from effective utilization on a global scale- such technologies can create more efficient utilization of water. Unfortunately, “water harvesting” from rains for domestic use is almost never applied either.
In developed countries we see the problem of aging water carriers, which cause large water loss and decreasing water quality. The investments required are huge.
What does the future hold?
Predictions talk about growing water shortage in all fields. The UN estimates that in 2025, 1.8 billion people will not have a glass of clean water within reach. Water carriers need a very expensive upgrade, and water will increasingly become an “endangered resource” – too precious to bear.
So what needs to be done? First and foremost: Applying various technologies for water recycling, increasing water desalination, applying and enforcing regulatory measures to maintain and monitor water resources and prevent pollution, and engaging consumers that will demand proven effective and non-polluting water treatment. These are just some of the measures required to preserve this important resource.
We, as inhabitants of this Planet, must remember that water is one of nature’s most precious resources, which is essential to sustain human existence. We should all pull together to preserve this resource for our sake and for the sake of generations to come.