Human intervention has been responsible for polluting and emptying water resources at a criminal rate.
I love looking at lists of our culture’s greatest achievements. I’m always astounded, for example, to read of the stupendous effort that went into building the Pyramids of Giza: At least 10,000 people worked for 30 years to erect giant tombs for their leaders.
And I don’t see how anyone could contain excitement when reading, to provide another example, that the Hoover Dam is “one of man’s greatest achievements” because it brought “order to the rampaging Colorado River, maker of the Grand Canyon and lifeline of the American Southwest.”
And who could possibly disagree with sentiments like “Each time I see a building rise into the sky, the sight of the plumbing pipes—the final arteries of a marvelous life-sustaining system—evokes a special feeling of wonder and pride.”
But one thing bothers me about these lists: They hold back from showing the most unbelievable and important accomplishments, the ones that really showcase this culture’s power, that get to the core of what this culture is about, the ones that make plumbing pipes seem trivial.
So I’ve started making lists of my own. Here’s a list of some of this culture’s greatest accomplishments having to do with water.
The Aral Sea, whose name means “sea of islands” because there used to be more than 1,100 of them, was once the fourth largest lake in the world, covering more than 26,000 square miles. But some brave souls—an entire culture of them—were able to see past the beauty and food and water supply for locals to the real value beneath. They recognized that this lake was, as they put it, a “mistake of nature” and a “useless evaporator.” They had the boldness of vision to construct dams and dig 200,000 miles of canals to divert water from rivers that used to flow into the Aral Sea instead into the desert to grow rice, melons and cotton. The plan has been a complete success, in that by 1988 Uzbekistan had become the world’s largest cotton exporter.
Everyone knows that any water that reaches the sea is wasted. This line is said often by farmers across the world. It is said often by politicians and technocrats. It was said just this year by a US presidential candidate in a campaign speech. Water could and should be used to fuel the economy.
So the 10th greatest accomplishment of this culture has been to make sure that almost none of the water that would have reached the Aral Sea is “wasted.” In the last 50 years, the Aral Sea has decreased to about 10% of its former size.
Much of the former bed now constitutes the Aralkum Desert, with soil made toxic from farm waste run-off. But that shouldn’t be a long-term problem because the soil blows away in the wind, carrying the pesticides as far away as Antarctica, to be taken up by penguins, among others. Problem solved.
This achievement—essentially dewatering the world’s fourth largest lake—as imposing as it is, is not unique. We’ve also been able to decrease Lake Chad in Africa by about 90% and to dewater lakes all over the world, from Tulare Lake—once the largest lake in the United States west of the Mississippi—to Lake Poopó in Bolivia, to what used to be the third largest lake in Italy, Fucine Lake.
Many treaties made between the US government and American Indian nations stated that the treaties would remain in effect so long as the wind blew and the rivers flowed—in other words, in perpetuity.
The ninth greatest accomplishment is the dewatering of great rivers. No longer can rivers be presumed to flow forever. For example, the Colorado River used to run almost 1,500 miles from the mountains to the ocean. No longer is that water wasted, merely acting as “the lifeline of the American Southwest,” but instead it’s used for agriculture and industry. The Colorado River no longer reaches the sea.
Similarly, the Indus, once the 21st largest river in the world—with a flow of 50 cubic miles per year—has been reduced to “dribbling to a meager end,” once again not wasted but used for agriculture and industry. The Rio Grande has been reduced by about 80% of its flow, so there’s still room for improvement.
The crowning achievement is probably the Yellow River in China. It’s the sixth longest river in the world, at about 3,400 miles. A bit shorter now because its water is used instead of wasted, it has been known to not reach the ocean for up to 230 days per year.
Twenty-five percent of rivers no longer reach the oceans. We have only three out of every four left until no river water is wasted.
It’s a powerful achievement to dewater lakes and rivers, but it takes even more power to dewater aquifers—underground layers of rock or silt containing water. Aquifers can be immense. The Ogallala Aquifer in the United States, for example, underlies 174,000 square miles, and once had a volume of about 1,000 cubic miles of water. The question becomes: How do you drain something so vast and underground, at that? You can’t pull a gigantic plug. And since it’s recharged extensively by rain, you can’t simply dam inflowing rivers.
The solution is both simple and elegant: You pump out the water. You make sure it’s not wasted underground, but use it to grow cotton and other crops. You turn it into money. Of course you can’t stop the rain, but as long as you pump out water faster than it goes in (and they pump out about 6 cubic miles per year just from that one aquifer), and as long as you keep at it, you can eventually achieve your goal.
There’s still a lot of work to be done to drain the Ogallala aquifer but, so far, we’ve been able to pump out enough that in some places wells must be 300 feet deeper than prior to the beginnings of the withdrawal.
And as with the Aral Sea, we’re accomplishing our goals around the world: 21 of the world’s 37 largest aquifers are in significant decline, with 13 of these verging on collapse.
Technocrat billionaire Elon Musk and others have written that one way to search for extraterrestrial intelligence is to search for polluted planets, since industrial processes inherently pollute, and intelligence—in their perspective—inherently leads to industrial processes. Therefore, one sign of intelligence is the pollution of one’s own planet.
In this spirit, our seventh greatest water-based achievement is the toxification of groundwater worldwide.
This accomplishment tested our abilities, in part because this water is underground, and so it’s harder in some ways to deliver poison, and also because these aquifers are so large.
But any culture that could have 10,000 people work 30 years to erect giant tombs has shown a certain relentlessness of purpose, a relentlessness that continues to this day.
We’ve all seen videos of people whose well water has been so polluted by fracking that they can turn on the tap and light the water on fire. But fracking isn’t the only way to pollute groundwater—although the idea of injecting toxic chemicals far underground, under high enough pressure to break up stable rock formations and infuse these rocks with chemicals, is ingenious. Storing toxic chemicals directly over aquifers also works, as the chemicals sink into the soil. Applying insecticides and herbicides works much the same.
And it’s a success. Extraterrestrials searching for signs of intelligent life would surely recognize this as a sign of our intelligence.
The aliens would also recognize our intelligence in our treatment of surface waters. More or less every body of water in the world—from the depths of the biggest oceans to the tiniest rivulets—is contaminated with human-made toxins. This is about 330,000 cubic miles of now-contaminated water.
Even the contamination of only the fresh water on the planet would be an extraordinary achievement, especially when you consider that, until recently, all humans on Earth drank from rivers and lakes.
In China, some of the rivers have been so successfully polluted that they are toxic to the touch. We have also been able to put toxins in every being’s “biological water,” that is, the water held in every living being. It’s an absolutely stunning accomplishment.
The government of India is planning to make sure that no water in India is wasted by the natural world. The plan is to build 3,000 new dams and dig 9,000 miles of new canals in order to “redesign the natural flow” of 37 major rivers so the government can “relocate” more than 40 cubic miles of water each year.
What is true of water is true of everything and everyone else on the planet: If it’s not converted into money—not converted into fuel to power the economy—it’s wasted.
Environmentalist Farley Mowat wrote in Sea of Slaughter: “It is probably impossible for anyone now alive to comprehend the magnitude of fish life in the waters of the New World when the European Invasion began.” One explorer stated that the waters in the Grand Banks were “so swarming with fish [that they] could be taken not only with a net but with baskets let down [and weighted] a stone.” Another explorer noted that there were so many huge fish (in this case cod) “that at times they even stayed the passage” of ships. And another explorer: “Cods are so thick by the shore that we hardly have been able to row a boat through them.”
That’s a lot of fish going to waste. Even worse, we could make similar comments about so many other fish who were just as common. Shad. Haddock. Halibut. Salmon. Flounder. Eel. Lots of fish going to waste.
The skies were also full of birds who ate these fish, and the seas were full of whales and seals who ate these fish. So many fish, so many birds, so many whales, so many seals, all going to waste.
So, accomplishment number four is the capture of all of this fuel for the economy. The great schools of cod are gone, the great flocks of seabirds, the great herds of whales and seals. Gone, gone, gone. No longer being wasted. Gone!
The invention of plastic is an extraordinary accomplishment in itself: The creation of something that for all practical purposes doesn’t decay. Developed through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it entered mass production in the 1930s. Its production has been soaring since then, with the industrial economy now producing close to 300 million tons per year.
Much of this plastic ends up in the ocean—enough each year that if it were all on the shore, you’d have five grocery bags full for every foot of coastline in the world. There’s enough plastic in the ocean to cause floating patches the size of large states. Enough plastics in the ocean to outnumber phytoplankton—the basis of life in the oceans, and indeed life on Earth, as they produce the oxygen for one out of every two animal breaths on this planet—by 10 to one. Enough plastic to cause one of every three seabird chicks in some rookeries in the Pacific to starve to death, bellies full of plastic.
Enough plastic to choke the life out of the oceans. And it doesn’t decay. What an incredible accomplishment.
If somehow, in 1870, you weighed all the fish in the oceans and then you did the same today, the total weight of all fish would be about 10% of what it was then. And, of course, by 1870 we were already well on our way to making sure that no fish went to waste, so it’s safe to say this 90% reduction followed prior reductions as this culture has made its way around the world.
Not satisfied with these reductions, we continue to kill fish to convert fish into money, and also to kill them and simply throw them back in the ocean for no reason at all. It’s called bycatch. Bycatch is when you haul up your net and find dead fish (or birds or whales or seals or turtles or anyone else) of a species different than the one for which you will be paid. About 40% of all fish caught commercially are killed and thrown overboard. In some industries, the bycatch to commercial catch ratio runs 20 to 1.
The upshot is that stolid scientists are saying that, within 35 years, the oceans could be devoid of fish. It will have taken long and intensive effort, but it will be well worth it to make sure that no fish are ever again wasted, and that fish—who have been around for 450 million years and who have survived multiple mass extinctions—understand that their ability to survive is nothing compared to our ability to destroy.
This brings us to our finest water accomplishment—unfortunately still a work in progress—which is the killing of the oceans on this water planet through toxification, through filling them with plastics, through overfishing, through blasting the oceans with artificial noise at up to 260 db (front row at a rock concert is 130 db; pain and damage inevitable to humans at 140 db; humans die at 160 db; 260 db is 10,000 times more intense than a nuclear explosion at 500 yards), through acidifying the oceans, through dredging them, through causing sea level to rise (killing biomes in the shallows and on the shore), and on and on and on.
Pretend you went back 10,000 years and you asked the people you saw which would be a more difficult and arduous accomplishment between, on the one hand, erecting huge tombs (or, for that matter, putting a person on the moon) and, on the other, dewatering lakes, rivers, and aquifers and toxifying water across the world, as well as wiping out so much life in once-unimaginably fecund oceans (and rivers and lakes and wetlands) that you have effectively killed even the oceans themselves.
The people 10,000 years ago would laugh at you and say: “What a silly question. Of course it would be harder to kill the oceans. No one could cause so much destruction. No one could turn the whole world into the largest tomb of all. And why would they be so stupid as to want to?”
Originally published at Fair ObserverFiled in Essays