Water is present throughout the cosmos in the form of ice or vapor. It is even relatively common in the vapor state. But of liquid water none seems to exist outside the solar system. Thus, water is the defining and contributing element of life for planets as well as for people. We, however, people with a dwindling sense of the sacred, have taken such elements for granted. “Today water refers mainly to a commodity providing material comfort and prosperity....We expect it to be as clear, colorless, and odorless as we can get it, and then we dismiss it from consciousness. With hardly any effort on our part, it comes gushing from a tap....” The big four, earth, air, fire and water have been desecrated for decades if not centuries and are henceforth rebelling against humankind. Earth depleted of its forests is ceasing to protect and guarantee breathable air, fires rage in desiccated areas and water pollution creates continents of plastic in the oceans. The urgent question is how to reverse that trend. The fact that industry is beginning to take a responsible approach is obviously an example worth giving to both governments and governed. But, alongside industrial considerations about access, volume, quality, sharing, preservation and costs of utilitarian use of water, there is an urgent need to also emphasize water’s health, recreational, cultural and symbolical values. It may not be enough for governments to regulate and business to conform, but effective communication strategies should also be devised to remind people how precious water is to each one of us for body and mind.
Our body of water
To begin, we must always keep in mind that water is as essential to our physical survival and well-being as air itself. Following Carl Sagan’s famous claim that “We’re made of star stuff” it is said that all matter including humans are made of stardust. The other constituent is water. Science tells us that our adult bodies contain between 50 and 70 percent of water. Most of that water sits inside cells. Another part occupies the intercellular space, serving as a reserve for cells and blood vessels. The rest is contained in the blood and lymph and circulates continuously throughout the body. Water builds and feeds cells, carrying nutrients and proteins in our bloodstream and removing toxins from liver and kidneys, all in a complex hydrologic system for intake, usage, purification and flushing. Water is meted in different parts of the body according to specific needs: on the average, the adult brain and heart hold approximately 75 percent of water, lungs 80 percent, skin 65 percent, muscles and kidneys 80 percent, and even bones contain roughly 25 percent water. Water performs various key mechanical functions including acting as a thermostat and regulating body temperature, absorbing shocks for brain and spine and lubricating joints. The brain also needs water to manufacture hormones and neurotransmitters.
The problem is that the human body cannot store water. Indeed, the body permanently eliminates water via excretions (mainly urine), breathing (at the time of exhalation), and especially sweating. In fact, compared to most of our animal brethren, we are some of the most water inefficient beings on the planet. The reason is that we lose quite a bit of water every day and we have no real way to store excess water or replenish our lost reserves short of simply drinking more of it. Unlike many other animals we cannot go long stretches without a supply of fresh drinking water.
To keep the body in good health, water losses must always be compensated by the intakes. Without water of any kind, humans cannot live more than two or three days; if they drink without eating, they can survive for about forty days, provided they make no effort. Scientists all agree on the need but not on the exact amount. Common recommendations average the overall amount of water necessary for an adult of average height, living in a temperate region and not providing any particular physical effort, to approximately 2.5 liters per day of which approximately 1 liter is provided by food and 1.5 liters by drink. Thirst is a mechanism by which the body “warns” that it is dehydrated. Some nutritionists advise not to wait until you are thirsty to drink, but others suggest it’s better to trust our own bodily response to dehydration and attend to our feeling of thirst before reaching for water. While most people don’t observe systematically these health measures, many carry a bottle of water on them or at hand’s reach all the time, keeping it by their bed at night.
Trusting tap or bottled water
The reality, at least in the more advanced economies, is that tap water is probably safer health-wise than plastic bottles. And, to support that observation, around two thirds of European and North American populations drink it more or less unconcerned. The majority of the U.S. population drinks tap water on a regular basis: 71 percent drink tap water at least sometimes, while only one in ten (12 percent) say they never drink tap water.
Drinking from plastic bottles could be another problem, not a solution. Per liter consumed, bottled water is deemed to cost 2000 times more than tap water, and the discarded bottles count among the most abundant and damaging environmental hazards to say nothing about the huge costs of transporting it from production to distribution points. While bottled water is very convenient because easily transportable and endowed with different tastes depending on one’s favorite brand, it is often no different in substance from tap water and may also contain plastic particles that are not healthy.
Research claims that most bottled water is no different than tap water. Chemicals found in bottled water included endocrine disruptors. Harmful side-effects from prolonged exposure to these chemicals include; stunted growth, early puberty, premature birth, infertility, early menopause, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
Water in health, longevity and fitness
Interesting correlations between longevity and regular intake of quality water containing magnesium have been found in areas where a greater concentration of people live healthily to a 100 years and more. The areas that have received most attention are distributed throughout Southern China and the average longevity is attributed to the quality of groundwater, particularly where residents do not benefit from public (softened) water services and resort to natural (hard) water sources rich in oligo-elements. Hard water contains calcium and magnesium also present in large quantities in sea water. By indirect association, magnesium and the myth of The Fountain of Youth are related. Both are supporting longevity and vigor.
In most ancient cultures, water represents spiritual as well as physical renewal. Over millenia, water has been recognized as a sine qua non support for survival and a symbol of creation, fertility, rebirth, renewal, and food supply. Symbolic aspects are related to birth and fertility (agricultural and human). Water always was and still is the main source of cleaning and cleansing, hence the healing properties that mythology as well as poetry and numerous expressions in common language and culture attest. The greatest virtue of water is that it recreates life seasonally.
The legend appears first in Herodotus and has inspired a fair abundance of written, sculptural and pictorial renditions, but it really took off in the reports of one Juan Ponce de Léon, a Spanish conquistador who supposedly ‘found’ it in Saint Augustine, Florida, apparently also believed to be the place of the first settlement of Europeans on the American continent. The connection with magnesium would depend on the abundance of this element in that geographical site, now turned into a park attraction that brings thousands of tourists.
Recreation: our mind on water
Tourism and people’s fixation on health still capitalize on beliefs akin to antiquity. For example, people the world over, pay monthly visits to one reputed spa or another. The common expression is “take the waters” to clean body and refresh mind. Such healing powers have much to do with plush settings of bathing and cleansing rituals. The notion of rejuvenation is not quite as magical as that of the Fountain of Youth, but both imply recreation.
Regarding its benefits to the mind, among the most intriguing factoids I have found about water is the claim that living near or by water, even if only a fountain or a brook, is statistically associated with more frequent and improved sense of well-being with respect to other dwelling areas where it cannot be seen or heard. Among the benefits associated with living by the sea or any other body of water hard or soft: fresh air and sunshine often present on beaches, improved vitamin D intake and increased immune function. Some also mention the soothing sounds of brooks, rivers and seashores. Generally, the presence of water contributes a closer relationship to nature. According to poet and author Gary Snyder in “Coming into the Watershed”: “The surface (of the earth) is carved into watersheds—a kind of familial branching, a chart of relationship, and a definition of place....Watershed consciousness...is not just environmentalism, not just a means toward resolution of social and economic problems, but a move towards resolving both nature and society with the practice of profound citizenship in both the natural and the social worlds.”
Economic value of non-strictly utilitarian uses of water
Since the economic value of water will be probably measured by industrial priorities, now is the time to provide foresight and guidance to devise policies that guarantee the continuance of humanistic values attached to water. The question, beyond reducing the dangerously unequal distribution of water on the planet, will be how to respond and equilibrate justly and wisely the needs of both industrial and recreational use.
Allocating water among multiple competing uses will increasingly necessitate tradeoffs among economic, ecological, and societal values. The value of water in recreational uses will reflect trends in water demands and values associated with all water uses occurring in contemporary world. To a large degree, these trends will affect the extent to which water resource planners and policymakers will be able to accommodate multiple water users, and resolve conflicts between recreational uses and nonrecreational uses. Anticipating the need to make tradeoffs between recreational and nonrecreational uses of water in the future will require (1) information regarding the economic value of water in recreational uses (2) information regarding projected demands for water recreation and (3) information regarding projected demands for water for nonrecreational uses. Together, this information can aid in developing and implementing water resource policies that seek to balance the interests of both recreational and nonrecreational water users.
Ian McHarg provided direction for future management actions when he wrote: Clearly the problem of man and nature is not one of providing a decorative background for the human play....it is the necessity of sustaining nature as source of life, milieu, teacher, sanctum, challenge, and, most of all, of rediscovering nature’s corollary of the unknown in the self, the source of meaning.
Sparing water usage
Learning to save water requires a mentality revolution, especially in industrialized countries, where water is so easy to access that everyone has become accustomed to consuming it without restraint. It is therefore a question of making all water users responsible, not only the industrial and agricultural actors who consume a lot of water, but also individuals, and to teach them the gestures that help daily save and to save water. An original approach in Costa Rica has registered a modest but visible progress: A set of simple and replicable behavioral interventions use stickers that can be added to water bills at low cost, and test their impact on water consumption in Belen, Costa Rica, using a randomized control trial. A descriptive social norm intervention using neighborhood comparisons reduces consumption by between 3.7 and 5.6 percent relative to a control group, while a plan-making intervention reduces consumption by between 3.4 and 5.5 percent.
Making water sacred again
The idea and the need to respect water at the individual level is not new. Every advanced economy has developed campaigns but to little avail. It is possible that as the reality of climate change eventually comes to the foreground of people’s preoccupations, the sense of how casually they treat water will grow and change attitudes, but what is really needed in government and PR businesses thinking is to go way beyond fine tuning personal habits and go back in time, maybe to restore the sense of the sacredness and reverence that our ancestors in all cultures had developed and sustained for centuries for water.
The author: Derrick De Kerckhove
Scientific Director of Media Duemila/TuttiMedia Observatory and Visiting Professor at the Polytechnic of Milan, de Kerckhove directed the McLuhan Program in Culture & Technology of the University of Toronto from 1983 to 2008. He is the authof of numerous publications on the digital age, including The Skin of Culture and Connected Intelligence.
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