The trouble with water – and there is trouble with water – is that they’re not making any more of it. They’re not making any less, but no more either – there is the same amount of water on the planet now as there was in prehistoric times. People, however, they’re making more of – and all those people are utterly dependent on water for their lives, for their livelihoods, their food, and, increasingly, their industry.
Humans can live for a month without food, but will die in less than a week without water.
Humans consume water, discard it, poison it, waste it, and heedlessly change the hydrological cycles, indifferent to the consequences. Too many people, too little water, water in the wrong places at the wrong times and in the wrong amounts. The human population is burgeoning, but water demand is increasing twice as fast.
Water is in crisis in China, in south-east Asia, in south-west America, in North Africa – indeed, in much of Africa except the Congo, Niger, and Zambezi basins. Even in Europe there are shortages: drought is no longer a word alien to England, where water tables have been dropping since the early 19 90s. In many parts of Europe, downstream towns and cities are beginning to feel the consequences of the careless alteration in age-old hydrological eco-systems, as rivers suddenly rage out of control, wetlands dry up, and contaminants enter the groundwater.
And in all these places, the quality of the water that is available is bad, and getting steadily worse. There are, therefore, not one but two overlapping water crises: the crisis of supply and the crisis of quality. Or, to put another way, there is a sufficiency of water on the planet if we manage the resource correctly; the real problem is providing consumers with water that is fit to drink.
Of course, there are sceptics, just as there are those who still don’t believe in the notion that each generation is simply the earth’s steward, holding it in trust for generations to come. These sceptics believe the problem is overblown, and, even if it isn’t, it will surely be solved through human ingenuity and technological advances in the future. But these people are a constantly shrinking minority.
Everywhere you look, there are signs that the water supply is in peril.
In the winter of 2000 I travelled north from Agadez, in Niger, towards the Algerian town of Tamanrassat, which nestles at the foot of the Ahaggar Mountains. At an oasis along the way, the small pond of water, the only source in the community, because the well had temporarily filled in, was contaminated by the corpse of a dead camel. It was half in and half out of the water, and had clearly been there for some time, because it was decomposing. The water around it was a slimy green in colour and contained bits of reddish camel dung. No one had taken the camel out because no one knew whose it was, and to mess with another man’s camel in the Sahara is a risky thing. Prudent travellers to the oasis that week dug shallow wells near the pond, hoping the sand would filter out the detritus. Less prudent but still cautious travellers dipped their goatskin bags into the pond as far from the camel as they could. Others, inured to the sight and stench, simply filled their skins where they could and went on their way.
When I got back home, I would tell groups of people the anecdote of the dead camel. Their reactions were uniformly appalled: if the water was making them sick, why didn’t they do something about it – what was wrong with those people? In the end, as I listened to their reactions, the incident transformed itself in my mind from a story to a parable: the Parable of the Dead Camel. I would tell audiences of some other things I had found on my travels, dead camels of their sort, only much larger and much more deadly – our own planetary dead camels. For everywhere you looked, what we were doing to our water resources more and more resembled the carelessness and contempt for safety exhibited by those Tuareg nomads of the deep desert.
Two stories come to mind. I was once in the Kenyan town of Narok the night a group of Maasai morans, warriors going through their rites of passage to tribal elder, clashed with the thuggish national police of the then president, Daniel arap Moi. The cause of the ferocious riot that followed is of no consequence – warrior exuberance had gotten out of hand, and the police had overreacted – but, to be safe, I left them to rattle their spears and truncheons at each other and took refuge in a nearby village. There I was invited in by a family of Gabbra, who lived in a tiny four-hut complex three kilometres from the nearest well...
First published in Sublime Magazine Print: Water Issue 2007