A meditation on water
By Paul Heltne
What is this water that baptizes us? Why does a metaphor such as ‘the fount of life’ evoke a thrill of rich meaning? How does water relate to the phrase “For God so loved the world”?
Water is essential to life as we know it. As biological beings we are mostly water. Our water comes into and goes from our bodies, making us a part of the vast – indeed global – interconnectivity of water. This can remind us that we are so very much a part of the world “God so loves.” In fact, all the water on the planet is interconnected – in the air, in the surface water, in the ice caps and glaciers, in all living beings, and in the depths of the earth. Water’s connectedness means that all water is in use already, so careful consideration is mandatory before arrogating more of this precious substance for human use or pleasure. World over, people try to capture water and redirect it to human projects. Only recently are we beginning to question the ecological and ethical propriety of major projects such as reversing the Chicago River, using Colorado River water to make Las Vegas possible, and levying the Upper Mississippi to rush water away in the spring only to discover record low water in the fall.
Water is a compound of two of the most common elements in the universe, but, while widespread, water is one of the most uncommon compounds. A molecule of water is made of one atom of oxygen and two atoms of hydrogen (H20). Oxygen is a big atom and hydrogen the smallest, and in water, the two hydrogens are not spaced symmetrically about the oxygen atom. This results in the water molecule having a positive charge on the hydrogen pole and a negative charge on the oxygen pole. This polarity makes it possible for water to bring many substances into solution, pulling them apart into ions. This sets the stage for many other chemical reactions, including those which occur in every living creature, every day, mostly without our being aware of this astonishing activity.
For instance, every bit of neural activity involves this special power of water. And in our gut, most of the nutrients we actually absorb are in molecular form in a water solution. The food molecules can then be used in the physiological functions of our organ systems. Of course, in the absence of a correct balance of the compounds in our watery solutions, we become mentally deranged or unconscious, our organ systems shut down, and our muscles, including the heart, go into spasm. If this is not relieved quickly by restoring the balance of water and other chemicals in the body, we die.
Water is at the base of all of the food we eat. Photosynthetic organisms (green plants, algae, etc.) use the energy from sunlight to combine water and carbon dioxide to create sugar. Sugar then provides the energy for all the rest of the metabolism of plants and animals. The end result: we and most other living creatures use the energy in sugar to drive all the other functions in our bodies, and releasing CO2, H2O and heat, the opposite of photosynthesis.
6CO2 + 6H2O + sunlight → 1 sugar + 6O2
1 sugar + 6O2 → 6CO2 + 6H2O + heat
Sugars are everywhere. Consider wood. Wood, for example, is made of cellulose, and cellulose is simply made of long chains of sugar interconnected with each other. That sugar is strong enough to keep my house standing and hold secure the books in my library shelves, and indeed, also comprises the paper in the books – all basically H2O and CO2. And when cellulose gets buried in the ground, out of reach of oxygen, it may change into other forms of carbon which we also covet: oil, natural gas, and coal.
Life needs lots of water. Experts state that, for a healthy life, a human needs a minimum of 20 liters of water per day (lpd). Imagine doing all of your cooking, cleaning, laundry, sanitation, bathing, and drinking in five gallons of water per day. However, many experts think that 50 lpd is the real basis for a healthy life. Meanwhile millions of people live on 3-4 lpd for all functions. Approximately 1.2 billion people lack access to clean drinking water. 2.2 billion are below the 50 lpd, and 62 countries fell below that level in 2000. Perhaps most striking is the fact that India was at an average of 31 lpd in 2000 and China was at 59 lpd. Both countries are trending downward.
Water soon may be at the center of national and international crises. Climate change will only make water supplies more uncertain and possibly more polluted. The Himalayan glaciers supply water to China, southeast Asian countries, and India. Because of climate conditions, these glaciers are diminishing year by year. It is difficult to imagine a sufficient and sustainable alternative supply for 3 billion people. Elsewhere in the world, such as the central United States, drought can lead quickly to over-pumping from wells, streams and lakes.
As noted above, water dissolves CO2; this means that oceans dissolve or absorb enormous amounts of that gas. For all of human history and well before, the oceans were in equilibrium with the atmosphere, absorbing and releasing this gas. Until 20 years ago, the seas were able to buffer all the CO2 in the air. In the 1960s, when I was in graduate school studying ecology, we were taught that the ocean was so vast that it would never become acidic from absorbing too much CO2, and thus CO2 would stay at a very small concentration in the atmosphere. Now, a 2013 publication from the National Academy of Sciences reports that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is already 10,000 times the level reflected anywhere in the entire geological record. This level of CO2 is rapidly overwhelming the buffering capacity of the oceans. Several years ago, researchers found that huge stretches of the North Atlantic were already saturated with CO2 and unable to absorb any further amounts without becoming acid. Ocean acidity exposes microscopic plants, sea weed, and corals to extreme danger and drastically changes the environment of most other sea creatures. The limitation on absorption of CO2 by the ocean means that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere will rise even faster along with global temperatures.
Water has other astonishing capacities. Water is very unusual in that it expands near the freezing point and breaks mountains into soil and concrete into rubble. When water evaporates, two things happen: 1. the water is purified because impurities are left behind in the process of evaporation, and 2. when evaporating, water takes on and stores enormous amounts of energy from the sun. This is exactly the same kind of energy that is released in steam engines. Thunderstorms and hurricanes are an expression of the energy stored in water vapor: storms move that energy around and release it far from the point of origin. Global warming means that there will be more water sucked up into the atmosphere creating more intense storms, like Sandy or Katrina. Climate change also means that whole weather patterns will intensify as seen in last year’s drought throughout the whole central part of the U. S., a drought now unbroken by fall rains or winter snows. This has left the Mississippi unable to fill its banks, creating limitations on shipping.
Many indigenous societies honor water as the very source and sustainer of life and recognize water as essential to the world around them as well as to themselves. In many of these societies water functions as a deity or as a profound gift from deity, deserving of its own ceremonies. Our modern response to water is slowly improving but is still often egregious. For instance, in fracking, we pump tons of secret, explosive substances deep into the ground through aquifer layers. What comes back up after the explosive is detonated is a toxic mix, sometimes including radioactive material. None of the frackers seem even vaguely interested in finding way to recycle the stuff or turn it into a substance that won’t further pollute the environment. Fracking is a huge and dangerous experiment. We have enough wells in the ground now to stop drilling until we make a thorough analysis of the entire process with the aim of seeing if fracking is to be included in an appropriate relationship with the world God so loves.
In many parts of the world, access to water may mean a walk of two kilometers or more carrying a heavy water jug. Women and girls literally bear the burden of securing the family water supply. Each day, a sizable amount of time is required just to obtain water, sometimes getting in the way of educational opportunities. Aid has often been addressed to improving the water supply for humans, but often deeper wells have led to a dramatic lowering of the water table and the drying of water holes for other species. Dramatic examples occur in Djibouti and around Lake Chad in Africa.
We must now learn to live in what we might call the ecospheric way (in contrast to anthropocentric). The ecospheric relationship honors the way the Earth works. It is clear that economic incentives and our unconscious but intense anthropocentrism are not adequate to the water or warming challenges. Indeed, they are often destructive. Understanding water can help us recognize that our lives are a part of nature, not apart from it. We still have to learn fully what this means. We must all recognize that our lives, and those of our children, our grandchildren, and theirs depend on that acknowledgement. Shaping our actions accordingly, we may nurture that world God so loves.
*Dr. Paul Heltne originally spoke about water’s importance from a scientists perspective at Dominican University’s Siena Center last year as part of the Albertus Magnus Society’s Lecture series “Making Waves.” Heltne has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. After teaching at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine for 12 years, he was named the Director, later President of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and led the effort to build the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. He was a founding Director of the Center for Humans and Nature and a board member of CASIRAS and he is currently Director of the Ethopoiesis Project.
Covalence, February 2013