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. In fact life is mostly water. The average human is about 70% water. Several vegetables contain an even larger proportion of water. Indeed, one can live much longer without food than 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. Yet, water is not abundant everywhere on earth. With an increasing population of humans, parts of the world are facing an increasing scarcity of this essential resource. Even in places where fresh water is available in abundance, its quality is not the best possible one for human consumption, resulting in health problems for those who consume it.
Mankind has recognized the importance of water and its quality since ancient times. It has played a central role in 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. The water available for drinking in heavenly realms has been described as sweet and nourishing whereas in hellish region it is depicted as one that burns the throat. Even here on earth there are many places where available drinking water is unpleasant in taste and full of disease causing bacteria or chemicals. The quality and quantity of available water is a major index of the quality of life of different parts of our planet.
Oceans that cover a major portion of the earth’s surface are the largest reservoirs of water on earth. However, because of high salt content, ocean water is not suitable for drinking. Seawater is unsuitable for drinking even by severely dehydrated persons. Persons marooned at sea for prolonged periods have learnt to their peril that even though seawater may appear to quench thirst somewhat, it eventually leads to a greater dehydration of the body. Water that evaporates from the surface of the oceans gathers into clouds. Condensation of these clouds over land masses results in rain, hail and snow over land. This rain and snow is the source of our natural fresh water. Some of this water returns to the sea through rivers that flow back to the oceans. Some percolates into the ground resulting in underground rivers and reservoirs. Some remains as snow, frozen for long periods of time in the Polar Regions and on mountaintops. The snow that collects on high mountains melts slowly during summer months to feed rivers through the dry months.
Only a small percentage (less than one percent) of the total water on earth is suitable for farming and drinking but human, animal and industrial activity has led to its pollution. Some treatment of water is usually necessary to improve its quality. The River Jamuna flowing through the capital city of India is a mass of seething, filthy froth at the time of writing this.
Water starts to dissolve whatever it comes in contact with. A spoonful of salt will dissolve quickly in a glass 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. This is just as well, because if larger quantities of metals such as copper dissolved, then the water would 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 display a low degree of solubility in water. However, in modern times the use of man made chemicals has become more and more common. Many of these dissolve rapidly in water. Most are harmful. Agricultural pesticides that dissolve in water percolate to underground reservoirs contaminating these as well. If the degree of contamination is not of a critical kind, it may not lead to fatal consequences, but it will probably lead to lower levels of health and vitality for persons who consume it.
The quality of water may be improved by treatment. The methods of treatment can be as simple as mechanical filtration or boiling. Modern science has yielded more sophisticated methods of purification ranging from chlorination and ozonation to the use of ion exchange, reverse osmosis and ultra-violet irradiation. Distillation can produce completely pure water. However the purest water is not the tastiest or healthiest one to drink. Water containing beneficial minerals improves the taste of water and nourishes life.
Fresh water is frequently classified into two broad categories – surface water and ground water. Surface water refers to the water in lakes, rivers, snow and ice. Water that percolates below the surface of the earth is referred to as ground water. Ground water can be a flowing one like a river or it may remain stationary in bodies such as lakes. Water that has entered the earth’s surface at one location may also emerge as an underground spring at another location. Surface water is usually not very high in mineral content, and often it is soft water. Surface water may get contaminated from animal wastes, agricultural chemicals, industrial chemicals and wastes as well as sewage and other discharges from human habitations. Even remote mountain streams may contain harmful bacteria from the feces of wild animals. Boiling or disinfecting by chemical means is recommended to eliminate the risk. In the populated Himalayan regions of India, epidemics of cholera have not been uncommon, and there have been occasions when health regulations have required outside visitors to get inoculated prior to a visit.
Ground water too may contain any of the contaminants found in surface water. However, it is usually safer to drink than surface water. On the other hand, the dissolved mineral content of ground water is usually higher. It can contain minerals besides common salt. Magnesium and calcium are some of the minerals commonly found in ground water. Such water is referred to as hard. Usually, washing and cooking is more difficult in hard water as compared to soft water. This water may or may not be harmful to drink depending on the type and extent of dissolved minerals and chemicals in the water. Groundwater from some sources has been found to contain excessive fluorides leading to diseases of the bone. Incase one has the choice and is unsure; soft water is the better one to choose for drinking. A mixture of both hard and soft water is even better provided that the hard water has only beneficial minerals dissolved in it. Distilled water is the purest with no mineral content but it is too bland for regular consumption. If that is the only safe water available for drinking then adding a pinch of salt and sugar to it can easily rectify the taste. Adding some other herbal and organic agents in small quantities such as a teaspoon of natural vinegar to a liter of water is held by some to be beneficial for health.
Water supply is one of the major problems facing mankind at the present time. The existence of large cities and excessive use of chemicals in agriculture and industry pollutes both surface and ground water. Thus, on the one hand, industrialization is helping to improve the quality of life; on the other it has worsened it as far as the quality of water is concerned. If the population growth continues unabated it will increase difficulties faced in maintaining adequate quantities of water supply in reasonably good quantities.
Whenever the question of conservation of water is raised, it must be remembered that except through rare chemical processes water cannot be destroyed. It merely moves from one place to another. Water is constantly in motion through nature. Therefore, we need not be concerned if we use copious amounts of water for 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 although abundant is of little direct use for human, plant and animal life. Nations facing a shortage of fresh water should 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 as fresh water on land and 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. Small reservoirs do not cause disruption of the environment as compared to large dams. Rather, they enhance the quality of environment. In fact no human settlement – villages, town or and city – should be considered environmentally congenial unless it contains a lake or a large pond. Large cities need to have several such lakes. If you happen to live in one that does not have a lake nearby it is time to voice the need for one. If a lake does exist near a human habitation steps are necessary to protect it from pollution. Combined with fresh water fish farming these reservoirs can rapidly pay for the cost of their creation. If fish start dying in a lake then it is time for urgent action to restore its health to a unpolluted state.
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 good sense. However, in areas where such rivers do not exist the effort of harvesting water may at times be futile. Nature is probably 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 not destroyed. 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.
How much water should one drink? Some doctors recommend eight glasses a day. The amount of water one consumes varies from person to person. It depends on the climate, activities and the extent of water consumed through food and other beverages. The feeling of thirst is a sufficient guide for a healthy human. It must be listened to and when thirsty it is best to drink the water slowly rather than gulp it down. The color and quantity of one’s urine can also be used as an indicator. If it has become dark or much too yellow, it is usually an indication that enough water is not being consumed. The urine of a healthy person consuming adequate amounts of water is free of excessive smell and nearly colorless. It flows freely and abundantly when the call of nature is addressed.