WHERE there is water there is life. Water comprises about two-thirds of our human bodily composition, and accordingly is important in every facet of our daily survival. Most of our world is covered with water, hence the abundance of life on earth. Species are more diverse where there is more water and energy; energy alone cannot support life, hence the paucity of biodiversity in the world's deserts. The connection between water and all living organisms is why evidence for water on Mars is so important to the search for life on that planet. Yet despite the abundance of water here on earth, no vital component of life is more illustrative of the great restrictive law of how sparing nature can be with its resources.
Water was an important key to the origins of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, and the lack of water was equally important to the fall of those early civilizations. It seems we still have not learned our lesson, for irrigation still leads to salinization of the soil or to erosion of the soil's nutrients. This leaves the land unfit for agriculture, and until a few pioneering species slowly conduct their valuable services of restoring the soil, it is unfit for high species biodiversity as well.
Agriculture also arose, independently, along the Yellow River about eight thousand years ago. Now this great river, flowing through the heart of China, is vital for the vastly overpopulated country. On its way to the sea, the river's waters are diverted into fields for agriculture and into the growing cities for consumption, sanitation, and industry. When I crossed the Yellow River in 1991, I was impressed by its majesty and size. But since 1985, each year the river has run dry for part of the year. In 1997, the river failed to reach the sea for 226 days. It had been sucked dry not by drought (although it had been a dry year), but by human consumption, leaving it barren for the aquatic species that used to thrive in its waters. Nature's forces had the last word. The following year heavy rains flooded the river, taking out farms, villages, and a 133
people. But the Chinese people returned to its banks as soon as they could. As long as the human population remains that large, they have to.
Most of the world's great cities are built along major waterways. Water is important for consumption and for transportation. One noticeable exception to the rule is Johannesburg, South Africa. There was no good reason for a city to spring up on the dry high veld, other than the gold that lay underneath the ground. Johannesburg was built on a river of gold, not one of water. Not only is water scarce there, but it takes a lot of energy to transport it and clean it, both before and after people use it. Thus water is a precious commodity in the city, and it was not uncommon when I lived there for us to undergo severe water restrictions. I was scolded for using running water overnight in my fossil preparation techniques, and could have been fined had I watered the grass. The great restrictive law had become a legal matter.
Now, despite the growth of cities along major waterways, more and more metropolitan areas experience water shortages. I never thought that would be the case here in Columbus, Ohio. We have two major rivers and three reservoirs to supply the city, and usually have abundant rains. I used to water my lawn with alacrity and let the tap run while I brushed my teeth or shaved. But water is no longer abundant for the taking, let alone the wasting. The Columbus metropolitan area, like so many urban centers across the world, is growing rapidly. Thus in a year that is slightly dry — which is when people tend to use more water — there are legal restrictions on water consumption. I had to let my grass go brown and subject my lawn to invasions by weeds that use the soil's sparse water more efficiently.
The solution most people propose to resolve the water crunch is this: build another dam so we can tap yet another reservoir for human consumption. I see an alternative solution as being more obvious: restrict the growth of the city. The populations of Columbus, Ohio, of the United States, and of the world are growing. People have to have someplace to go, whether to a city or along the banks of a river that is prone to floods. Building another dam can only accommodate them temporarily, but the long-term consequences are far-reaching.
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