Water is essential to human life, vital to the functioning of every single cell and organ in the human body. People can rarely survive longer than seven days without it.
Water makes up more than two-thirds of the weight of the human body: the brain is 75% water; blood is 83% water; bones are 22% water; muscles are 75% water; and lungs are 90% water. Water regulates body temperature through perspiration and serves as a lubricant in the fluids surrounding joints and bones. Water helps the body to absorb nutrients, plays a role in regulating metabolism, and constitutes saliva (necessary for consuming and digesting food). Water is essential for the efficient elimination of waste products through the kidneys.
In short, we can’t live without water, as Bill Bryson points out in A Short History of Nearly Everything. (2003):
“Every scenario you have ever read concerning the conditions necessary for life involves water – from the ‘warm little pond’ where Darwin supposed life began to the bubbling sea vents that are now the most popular candidates for life’s beginnings.”
Access to drinking water enabled the survival of all civilizations and communities worldwide. The very earliest began in river valleys: Mesopotamia around the Tigris and Euphrates, Egypt on the Nile, the dynasties of Xia and Shang along the Yellow River. The Indus Valley Civilization (2600-1900 BCE) was one of the first to build towns and open up trade routes. Without functional water management techniques, this would have been impossible. No wonder that throughout the ages, rulers tamed rivers, dammed lakes, and tried to control water resources. No wonder that water etiquette is a matter of survival: In the Namib desert (Africa’s second largest) the first act of hospitality among travellers is to offer water.
Water scarcity is a serious issue within nations. In the USA, rich Californians are currently facing the prospect of endless drought, mandated cuts in water usage, and year-long brown lawns. In India, poor Himalayan villagers are facing crop failure and a rapidly changing ecosystem that could have a dire impact on their lives. Elsewhere, the potential for political conflict is more immediate, primarily because 50% of the world’s water supply is transnational, running through two or more countries. In two-thirds of those areas, there is a lack of agreement about water usage.
In 2014, the United Nations Watercourses Convention came into effect. It seeks to “ensure the utilisation, development, conservation, management and protection of international watercourses” for present and future generations. Unfortunately, the convention is voluntary and, as we all know, you can lead a horse to water, but someone with a big gun may prevent you from letting it drink.
Ironically, as noted in “Water for a Sustainable World”, the United Nations World Water Development Report 2015:
“The fact is there is enough water available to meet the world’s growing needs, but not without dramatically changing the way water is used, managed and shared. The global water crisis is one of governance, much more than of resource availability, and this is where the bulk of the action is required in order to achieve a water secure world.”
Even so, there is still the grim prospect that millions will end up marooned like the Ancient Mariner in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime with:
“Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.”