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Water – The Drink Of Life

Where there is water there is life. Without water there is no existence. Light, Air and Water are basic to the creation and sustenance of life. Indeed one can live much longer without food than without water. Most humans may not survive for more than a few days without water. The production of food itself is dependent on water. If sometimes we focus more attention on food than water, it is because nature has been so enormously graceful in providing us with near unlimited supplies of this elixir of life. But it is not so everywhere on earth, and need not remain so unless we learn how to use this precious resource with care and responsibility. Even when water is available in abundance, its improper consumption or improper use leads to several health problems. It is because of the importance of water that it plays such a central role in the ancient religions of the world. Descriptions of hell and heaven are rarely complete without a description of the quality of water that is available for drinking.

A major index of the quality of life of different parts of our planet is directly linked to the quality and quantity of available water. The greatest reservoirs of water are the oceans. Although ocean water is not directly suitable to drink because of its high salt content, it is the source from where all our water emanates. The earth’s oceans cover three fourths of its surface. Clouds are made from the water that evaporates from this ocean surface. This returns to land in the form of rain or snow. Each year about 80 billion-acre feet, in the form of rain and snow fall on the continents. Of this water rivers, glaciers and ground water seepage return about a third to the sea. The remaining returns to the atmosphere to replenish the existing ground and surface water supplies. Of this abundance of water, but, less than 3% is fit for human use . Seawater contains so much dissolved solid that it is unsuitable for drinking even for a severely dehydrated persons. Persons marooned at sea for prolonged periods have learnt to their peril that even though sea water may appear to quench thirst somewhat, it eventually leads to a greater dehydration of the body than prevailed before drinking it.

Three percent is not much, but it is all we have and all we had probably since the birth of our planet or soon after it. It simply recycles over and over again. Of around three hundred and quarter million cubic miles of water on earth, only about 3% is fresh water. Three fourths of it is frozen. Only 1/2 of 1% of all water is underground. About 1/50th of 1% of all water is found in lakes and streams. The average human is about 70% water. Next to air, water is the most vital element to the subsistence of human life. What do we know about it? Most of us are so accustomed to drawing water from our taps that we quickly forget that our faucets are connected by long miles of pipe to a supply somewhere. An everlasting if not continuous flow of water is assumed to be an inalienable right. When we do reckon about water we usually visualize a clean clear gushing river flowing through a lush green landscape. Such a picture is rapidly becoming a historical or imaginary one. The sacred river Jamuna flowing through the capital city of India is a mass of seething, filthy froth at the time of writing this. Some scientists questioned to measure its contamination level have reported that it is not possible to do so because it is more or less fully sewage, not water. The sad fact is that millions in this city drink daily from this very source after incomplete treatment.

Scientifically no water in nature is completely pure. Pure water exists only in a laboratory. It is hard to produce and even harder to maintain. Water is a “universal solvent”, no matter what it touches, it starts to dissolve that substance, thereby contaminating or enriching itself. Nonetheless, the purest water is not the tastiest or healthiest one to drink. Water containing beneficial minerals nourishes life. If we mix a spoonful of salt in water we can quickly see the dissolving nature of water. If we place a piece of metal such as silver or copper in water, we cannot see this dissolving action. Nevertheless, a microscopic part of these materials also dissolves in water. This is just as well, because if larger quantities of metals such as copper dissolve, then the water will become poisonous. Different materials have different degrees of solubility in water. Nature has been immensely wise in this respect. Materials generally found in nature that could be poisonous to living creatures often show a low degree of solubility in water. But, in modern times the use of man made chemicals has become more and more common. Many of these dissolve quickly in water, even reaching underground sources. Most have adverse consequences on plant, animal and human life. The problem is when the minerals or other contaminants are of a harmful nature. If the degree of contamination is not of a critical kind, it may not lead to a fatal or serious consequence, but it will probably lead to lower levels of health and vitality.

Water may be classified broadly as of two types. The first is described as “surface water”. This includes oceans, lakes, rivers, snow and ice. The second is “ground water”. This is water from under the surface of the earth in different geological formations. The water enters the formation via percolation of water from precipitation and direct seepage from surface water sources. Large ground water holdings are called “aquifers”. At places water that has entered the earth’s surface at one location may emerge as an underground spring at another location.

Surface water is just what the name implies; it is water found in a river, lake or other surface impoundment. This water is usually not very high in mineral content, and many times is called “soft water” even though it usually is not. Surface water is exposed to many different contaminants, such as animal wastes, pesticides, insecticides, industrial wastes, algae and other organic materials. Even surface water found in a pristine mountain stream possibly contains Giardia or Coliform resulting from the feces of wild animals, and should be boiled or disinfected by some means prior to drinking. In the populated Himalayan regions of India, epidemics of Cholera have been common and there have been occasions when health regulations have required outside visitors to get inoculated prior to a visit.

Ground Water is that which is trapped beneath the ground. Rains that soak into the ground, rivers that disappear beneath the earth, melting snow are but a few of the sources that recharge the supply of underground water. Because of the many sources of recharge, ground water may contain any or all of the contaminants found in surface water as well as the dissolved minerals it picks up during it’s long stay underground. Waters that contain dissolved minerals; such as calcium and magnesium above certain levels are considered “hard water”. Water is considered a “solvent”, i.e., over time it can break down the ionic bonds that hold most substances together. It tends to dissolve and ‘gather up’ small amounts of whatever it comes in contact with. For instance, in areas of the world where rock such as limestone, gypsum, fluorspar, magnetite, pyrite and magnesite are common, well water is usually very high in calcium content, and therefore considered “hard”. At other places ground water may develop the qualities to stain clothes or an unpleasant taste due to the presence of excessive dissolved iron. Groundwater from some sources in Western India has been found to contain excessive fluorine leading to diseases of the bone and tragic health consequences.

Normally, surface water is soft and underground water is hard. This means that the underground water has more minerals or solids dissolved in it. Distilled water is the purest form of water with no minerals whatsoever in it. Incase one has the choice and is unsure; soft water is the better one to choose. A mixture of both is better provided that hard water has only beneficial minerals dissolved in it. Distilled water is much too bland for regular consumption. Incase, that is the only safe water available for drinking in a specific situation, then adding a pinch of salt and sugar to it can easily enrich it.

Water supply is one of mankind’s most basic problems. It is becoming more serious every year with increase of population and industrialization. There is an urgent and ever growing need for water that is pure enough for human consumption and excellent health. Added to this is the increasing contamination of our fresh water resources due to rapid industrialization. Even in developed countries such as USA, the quality of water has become a significant problem. The most widespread problem is the supply of clean, safe, healthy drinking water. In several parts of the world water supplies are being used up at quicker rates than they can be replenished. Major rivers, by the time they find their way to the sea are nothing more than a polluted solution. In several areas water is rationed as the demands for water steadily increase. Large urban communities have their water supplies metered and commercial, industrial and residential customers pay high fees for excessive usage. Excessive use of chemicals in agriculture and industry pollutes both surface and ground water. Thus on the one hand whereas industrialization is helping to improve the quality of life, on the other, it has worsened it as far as the quality of water s concerned.

Only a small part of fresh water is consumed for drinking. In developed countries, total community water use is around 175 gallons per capita per day. Less than one gallon of this being used for human consumption that is cooking or drinking water purposes. Less than 1 percent of all freshwater usage is for drinking water purposes. Domestic functions, irrigation, etc consume the other 99 percent. The majority goes to commercial and industrial applications. Production of electricity requires the use of copious amounts of fresh water. The water used in the boilers of thermal power plants has to be much purer than water required for drinking even to prevent serious problems in the production of steam. Therefore such plants are located in the vicinity of rivers or lakes.

Whenever the question of conservation of water is raised, it must be remembered that except through rare chemical processes water cannot be ruined. It merely moves from one place to another and water is constantly in motion through nature. Therefore, we need not be concerned if we use copious amounts of water for any of our needs. The water we use does not leave our planet. It remains with us forever, for further use in future. Water conservation is not about reducing the use of water but about its proper use and about maintaining its quality. Seawater is of small direct use for humans as well as plant and animal life. Nations facing a shortage of fresh water should first pay attention to the fresh water that returns to the sea through both surface and underground rivers. If the same water is collected in ponds, lakes and dams it remains either as fresh water on land or serves to enhance ground water reservoirs and streams. Countries such as India that loose a large fraction of its fresh water to the sea, especially during the monsoon season should consider the creation of more inland reservoirs whenever the opportunity arises. These reservoirs if combined with fresh water fish farming can rapidly pay for the cost of their creation.

In recent years there has been much talk of harvesting rainwater, that is collecting water and directing it to underground reservoirs. In areas where such water flows into rivers that flow to the sea, this makes excellent sense. But, in areas where such rivers do not exist, the effort of harvesting water may at times be futile. Nature is already doing it for free. Even the water that is lost by surface evaporation is not really lost. It returns as rain or dew. Another area where futile efforts are often made is in the conservation of ground water. From time to time, government agencies consider limiting and licensing the use of ground water. In many cases this is completely unnecessary. Drawing water from the ground in some cases even prevents the loss of the same water to the oceans. It may even help to improve the water quality by reducing salinity of the water (except in coastal areas), which develops due to long storage inside the ground. Water that is pumped out is once again not ruined. Much of it returns to the ground. All that happens is that its location is changed. When it is pumped out in excess the water table falls and exercises an automatic control that does not require bureaucratic expense.

Ashok Malhotra is an International Educator. More about him and his activities can be learnt from his website at steamcenter.com steamcenter.com

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