What is water?

We think we know water, taking it as we do in almost everything we drink or eat, washing in it, swimming in it, floating on it, wishing it would stop falling on our heads, or hoping it would start.  We know that we have to drink up to several litres of it each day, depending on heat and sweat, for if we don’t we are first driven and then tormented by thirst.

We know that there’s water in everything that comes out of our bodies, from blood and breath to tears and spit. We know that we must water our plants if the rain will not, and that we must bring our pets and livestock to water every day.  We know that things that are plump and moist are usually alive, or life-giving, and that things that are shrivelled and dry are usually dead, or waiting for water to make them good again.

We know that rivers flow down-hill, and that there are fish in them, and otters or platypuses near them.  We know that the ocean is vast and powerful, and that there are whales and sharks in it.  We know that water is potent and symbolic, for we dab it on our heads or sprinkle it on the ground during rituals.

Actually, we know a lot about water without really thinking about it.  We have an intuitive appreciation of its key role in physiology (because of thirst and sweat), ecology (because of fishes and farming), magic (because of rituals and dreams), economics (because we often have to buy it), and power (because we are vulnerable to those who control it).

But this everyday experience is just a fraction of the total reality of water and our relationship with it, our collective struggle to understand and use it in all its dimensions.  The rest of this book explores some of these aspects of water, as seen through the prism of ecology.  I chose that particular prism because life, water and ecosystems go together, always.  We are alive, and in using water and ecosystems we determine what all life will be like in the future, including our own.

Each chapter will show how a particular kind of thinking leads people to impose short-term demands on nature, with disastrous consequences, and how another, more ecological kind leads us to more sustainable outcomes. The dominance of short-term thinking has led us to environmental crisis, the solutions to which may be found in re-discovering the other kind of thinking.

The last two chapters explore this possibility, looking first in chapter 9 (The world to the rescue?) at the international efforts we’ve made so far to conserve nature and water. Finally, in chapter 10 (People to the rescue!), we’ll look at what we can do as societies and individuals to restore the biosphere to harmony, the evidence that we’ve solved similar major problems in the past, and a vision of what the biosphere might look like in the year 2085 if all goes to plan.

The water crisis is deeply challenging, but we can approach it knowing that all the world’s problems involve local ecosystems and local communities, so although they are all connected, there is the power and the precedent for solving them bit by bit.

But we’ll start with where water came from.  Then we’ll look at its physical and chemical nature and behaviour, to give a raw insight into the properties that make it so important while being so strange.  And as we go, we’ll be seeing how each of the extraordinary properties of water contribute to a symbiotic relationship with life itself, from the innermost workings of every living cell, to the physiology of whole organisms, and the patterns that sustain ecosystems and ultimately the biosphere itself.

Read on: Water in the biosphere.