‘Water, water, everywhere nor any drop to drink’

The title of this column is the well-known lament of the mariner in Samuel T. Coleridge’s 1798 epic poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” where the mariner tells a wedding guest the story of his time at sea. At one point his ship was stuck with no wind and the ocean was all around them but they could not drink any of the water because it was salty. This underscores an important lesson about our world’s water resources. 

Although 70 percent of the world’s surface is covered with water, 97.5 percent of the world’s water is salt water, which is not available to us as drinking water, unless we are willing to pay the price to remove the salt. The remaining 2.5 percent is freshwater. Of this water 1.97 percent of this is locked in the polar ice caps and the world’s glaciers, 0.5 percent is underground in groundwater aquifers and 0.03 percent exists in rivers, lakes, and the atmosphere. 

A sobering thought indeed, when we consider that 7.3 billion people are all seeking to use 0.53 percent of the world’s water. The good news is that water is in constant motion and our supply can be replenished though the Hydrologic Cycle of evaporation, condensation, precipitation, infiltration or percolation into aquifers, and surface runoff of water back to the oceans. The bad news is that we have been using water at a faster rate than it can be replenished and we are polluting that small amount of water, in the atmosphere and on the ground, requiring expensive cleanups and treatment to make it safe to drink. 

In 1974 the United States Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act, with a goal of providing all Americans with safe drinking water. This act, together with the Clean Water Act of 1972, has been the backbone legislation which has created cleaner waters for aquatic ecosystems and recreation, and the regulations to try to ensure that our water is safe to drink. 

Unfortunately, as we have seen recently in the case of Flint, Mich., people are sometimes willing to sacrifice the public’s health to save money. For nearly 50 years, Flint purchased its water from the City of Detroit, which treated the water with a chemical called orthophosphate. In Flint, many of the poor areas (more than half of Flint) still have lead service lines which bring water from the pipes in the street into their homes. The orthophosphate coated the old lead service pipes to prevent the lead from being dissolved from the pipes and entering the drinking water. In 2014, to save money, the city switched from the Detroit water to the lower quality and highly corrosive Flint River water. That was not the real problem. The problem was that they chose not to treat the water according to regulations, which has resulted in the corrosion of the water mains, releasing iron into the water causing a brownish color, but even more dangerous is the corrosion of the lead service lines releasing the lead, a neurotoxin known to affect brain development and leading to learning disorders, into the pipes and thus into the homes of the people of Flint. Their cost savings may have a serious effect on a generation of Flint residents. 

In this country there is even a movement to cutback these regulations, which have protected us and improved our air (Clean Air Act of 1970 and its amendments) and water over the last 40 years, to increase corporate profits under the guise of increased job development. 

In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis expresses his concern about the lack of fresh water available to all peoples, since it is indispensable to all forms of life, terrestrial and aquatic. It is vital to public health, public safety, agriculture and industry. The Holy Father states that, “access to safe drinking water is a basic and universal human right since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the existence of other human rights.” As you are reading this, according to the United Nations, one in nine people worldwide do not have access to safe drinking water and one in three do not have access to proper sanitation, such as toilets and wastewater treatment. Also, 3.5 million people die each year due to inadequate water supply, sanitation and hygiene. 

These are worrisome statistics, especially when, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, we in the United States, needlessly waste a total of one trillion gallons per year due to leaky kitchen and bathroom faucets, malfunctioning toilets, errant sprinkler systems, etc.

The pope is also very concerned that even though the quality and quantity of fresh water is diminishing, in some areas of the world there is a growing trend to privatize this most precious of resources and turn it into a commodity which is subject to the laws of the market. In addition to drought and pollution, privatization can make water available only to those who can pay for it despite the desperate need for it.

The United Nations reports that water availability is expected to decrease in many regions, and despite this, agricultural water use, which comprises about 70 percent (as much as 90 percent in some areas) of the global freshwater use, is expected to rise by 19 percent by 2050.

Currently 85 percent of the world’s population lives in the driest half of the planet. Some countries are rich in water while others endure drastic scarcity. Add climate change to this mix and we see, in general, that dry areas are getting drier, with the major deserts expanding, and wet areas are getting wetter, which often exposes people to extreme conditions of intense storms and floods.

Although we hear a lot of talk about gas, oil and other energy sources, the human species has lived hundreds of thousands of years without them, but we could only last a few days without water. We have to begin to look at our priorities, when it comes to spending, on our water infrastructure. Our grandparents, for the most part, footed the bills to bring us the current water systems that we have today. Our water systems have aged and it is now our time to fix and upgrade these systems to help provide all peoples with this critical resource.

Next month we will look at the science of water, our water resources, and what we can do to conserve them.

Anchor columnist Professor Rak is a Fall River native and a parishioner of St. Mary’s Parish in Fall River. He has been a professor of Environmental Technology and coordinator of the Environmental Science and Technology Program at Bristol Community College in Fall River for 18 years. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Holy Cross College in Worcester, and a master’s degree in marine biology from UMass Dartmouth. rrak@verizon.net.

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