Most of us take water for granted. In the United States pure water for drinking, cooking and washing is generally available simply by turning on a tap. In most of the world, water is not only in limited supply, it’s often contaminated with pathogenic organisms causing deadly diseases.
Ever stop to think where drinking water comes from? Many people think it simply comes from a faucet or a bottle. We often don’t think much beyond this response and wrongly assume bottled water is always purer or better for you than tap water. Many bottled water brands are simply water from the municipal supply. Whoever came up with the bottled water scam hit the mother lode. Bottlers are making a mint selling water at exorbitant prices that you could get from your own faucet.
Water is an amazing liquid. Almost everything dissolves in it, even glass in minute quantities. Because of its solvent properties water is literally our life’s blood. It enables nerve impulse transmission, carries oxygen and nutrients to our tissues while transporting carbon dioxide and other waste chemicals away. Water is vital to our ability to consume, digest and assimilate food. We can’t even swallow without it.
Our bodies, and those of other organisms – both plant and animal - depend on a constant supply of water. The human body is about 66% water. If your weight is 170, 112 pounds are plain old water and your system is careful to assure that you always have enough, but not too much. As water balance shifts below a certain level, a pea-sized gland called the pituitary near the base of the brain triggers thirst, prompting us to drink enough to offset fluid deficit. When too much water is present, our kidneys drain it off. Generally, a human needs to drink a minimum of a quart of water each day with another quart coming from the food we eat. In very hot weather we may need to drink as much as two gallons a day. In most survival situations water is much more critical than food.
The recycling of water through the environment is a simple but elegant operation. Heating from the sun causes it to evaporate from oceans, lakes, streams, plants and even animals, leaving waste materials and chemicals behind. This pure water vapor rises into the sky, cooling as it ascends until it condenses into clouds. When the tiny distilled water droplets in the cloud grow too large and heavy to remain airborne, they fall back to the earth as rain, some of which runs off into streams and other bodies of water. Unless it falls through heavily contaminated air, rain is pure. Much of it soaks into the ground where plant roots absorb the vital fluid. Animals eat the plants and ultimately release wastewater to start the whole cycle over.
Earth is like a spacecraft with a life support system that recycles everything we use. Think about that for a moment. Astronauts have been drinking recycled urine for several years. Nice thought, huh? Well, we’ve been doing the same thing for generations of time. We’re guzzling the same old water the dinosaurs or our grandparents drank and excreted. Luckily, we generally don’t have to think about those details. Like a hotdog or sausage, you really don’t want to know where it came from.
The problem with water is distribution. Moisture is spread unevenly around the planet by weather fronts, winds and jet streams. Some places have plenty, supporting lush rain forests; others are parched deserts. This past year we’ve had a severe drought.
Many of our large cities depend on deep wells that tap underground aquifers with limited recharge capability. When insufficient rain falls in the recharge areas and demand is high, these cities can have a serious water deficit as their wells dry up. Some cities in Texas and surrounding states are lobbying to purchase water from East Texas lakes. But even with these large reservoirs the supply is not unlimited. The time may come when limits on population will have to be imposed in those areas in order to assure enough water for everyone. Without doubt, nature has the upper hand. Without water, life cannot exist. Take a close look at Mars. Water is life. It’s critical that we use it wisely.
Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click firstname.lastname@example.org to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.