Water and Life
Exequiel Ezcurra, Ph.D., Provost and Director, Biodiversity Research Center of the Californias
Photos by Michael Field
It forms 90% of our bodies. It covers 70% of the surface of the planet in oceans and seas of mysterious and unexplored abyssal depths. In its gaseous form, it is in the air forming around 1% of the mass of our atmosphere.
Condensed into microscopic aerosol droplets, it forms the capricious shapes of the clouds in the sky. In liquid form, it moves and meanders in rivers. It undulates in lakes, and lies in the dark silence of deep underground aquifers. In its solid form, it covers with ice the polar caps and the mountain glaciers, and blankets with snow the white winter fields. It has been the fundamental driver of civilizations and complex social orders, and the
pretext for wars and conflicts. Its scarcity has been the cause of the collapse of entire civilizations, and its presence
has been the foundation allowing the rise of many others. Water
is now so fundamentally established in our everyday lives that
we take it as permanent and everlasting. Jorge Luis Borges
wrote in a poem:
I consider it as eternal as water and air.
But is water truly immutable? Intuitively, we all know that water preexisted life, that water preceded our own existence and that we came from it. All traditional narratives of the origin of our world describe the root of life in water; in every cosmology, genesis proceeds from water. The creation story of the Maya, the Popol Vuh, narrates the origin of the world in these fascinating terms:
The surface of the earth had not appeared. There was only the
Water, the origin of all life in every vision of our world, is now so common in everyday life that we seldom ask ourselves what would happen if the water supply would end one day.
But that simple question has followed humankind for centuries, as one of the most anguishing inquiries we can imagine. The collapse of Teotihuacan in the 8th century, the phantom metropolis called by the Aztecs the “City of the Gods,” was due to poor water management and ensuing desertification in the Basin of Mexico. The Aztecs themselves, who founded their civilization on marshes, revered Tlaloc—Water and Rain—as their founding deity, and depended on Tlaloc’s for their agriculture not to dwindle.
Ancient Hebrew farmers faced similar dilemmas. In the Old Testament, the punishment delivered by God to Cain, a tiller of the ground, for killing his brother Abel, a shepherd, clearly shows a similar tragedy of soil degradation, water exhaustion, and desertification: “When you till the ground, it shall not yield its strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shall you be in the Earth.”
The punishment is a very real one, and truly indeed, many cultures and many civilizations have become “fugitive and vagabond” because of the degradation of their water supply and their soils.
This is what our current exhibitions Water: H2O=Life and Water: A California Story are all about. The exhibitions are fun, playful, highly interactive, and very entertaining, but the underlying message is of the utmost gravity. Without a safe water supply, no civilization is possible. Without clean water, health is at risk. Without good and renewable sources of irrigation, there is no safety in our food supply. Without dense forests, rainfall will erode the ground and sludge down the hills in torrents of mud and sediment. And without healthy wetlands, our own water supply could decay. Water, the exhibitions warn us, can be polluted and degraded to a level that may make it unsafe for human consumption, and it is up to us to keep our water supply healthy and productive.
And although, as Borges suggested, water itself may be fairly eternal, the civilizations that fail to protect their water sources are definitely not. All the water we use comes from the environment, and the future of a vibrant and creative society depends critically on a deep and wise culture of water utilization and on an unremitting commitment to a healthy environment.
This is also our commitment at the Museum.
SAN DIEGO NATURAL HISTORY: FIELD NOTES, November 2008