Water and Civilization
Sumer, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Rome, London… all built next to waterways. H2O not only powers life, it powers civilization. Access to water for drinking and navigation has perpetuated the rise and fall of societies throughout human history. No other natural resource has been so closely linked to the fate of entire societies.
Almost three-fourths of the Earth’s surface is covered by this wonder substance. But as abundant as H2O is on our blue planet, access to the water that we need for everyday life is sporadic at best. Greenland, for instance, holds 10% of the planet’s reserves of fresh water, all of it frozen in inaccessible glaciers. Huge rivers in Mesopotamia, where civilization began, have all but dried up. The Nile and the Ganges, which sustained the rise and fall of great empires over thousands of years, nowadays carry water so polluted by the cities that discard their waste along their waterways (which run thousands of miles) that people cannot even touch it, let alone drink it.
This week, we kick-off a series of articles on this precious resource. The first of this series explores how water and civilization are interlinked—from the discovery that water is quite abundant in the universe, to how technology makes water accessible, and the future of our relationship with this essential resource.
Water: Much More Common Than We Imagined
Watery worlds are everywhere in our solar system. This is probably one of the most important discoveries in astrophysics over the past few decades. It was not that long ago when the prevailing notion was that the dominance of water was unique to Earth. After all, water is essential to life on this planet. It was not until telescopes and planetary probes carried the technology to “sniff,” “touch,” and “see” it in comets, moons, and planets that we realized water was, in fact, quite common—at least in our planetary neighborhood. For example, Europa, one of the dozens of moons orbiting Jupiter, has more water than our entire planet in the form of ice on the surface and liquid miles beneath it. The NASA rovers Opportunity and Curiosity have detected water right under the rocky red surface of Mars. Scientists are even working on innovative spectrometers that will be able to detect the presence of water in the extrasolar planets that are light years away from home. Water is, indeed, abundant.
Today, one of the most accepted theories of how Earth got its water is that we obtained it through comets soon after the planet formed. Dozens, maybe even thousands, of huge comets carrying ice, collided with our planet as the solar system evolved. The first water was trapped under layers of lava and rock as the Earth withstood this watery bombardment. As the planet cooled, these impacts formed the oceans on the surface. However, these water “deliveries” have since ceased. Therefore, Earth has a finite supply of water, which we need to protect and conserve.
Thinking about H2O (which looks so abundant) as a finite resource is critical. Civilization’s influence can now be seen in water at a planetary level. For instance, microplastics, most of which come from clothing fibers, are present in about 93% of the world’s rivers, lakes, and oceans. Dams, once seen as engineering marvels that enabled us to administer water in rivers, have been so overused that regions the size of entire states have either dried up or been flooded. Moreover, there exists a floating island the size of Texas, made up of plastic bottles, toys, and grocery bags, that now drifts in the Pacific Ocean.
Water and Technology
In the past, people chose to build their towns and cities next to or close to sources of drinking water. Today, technology enables us to provide fresh water wherever we choose. Progress in this area is two-sided. Take Dubai for instance. In just a couple of decades, this desert city rose from being a very small village with no drinking water to a modern metropolis because technology and money made it possible to supply the city with plenty of fresh water. On the other hand, it is also money and the lack of access to technology that keep more than a billion people from getting fresh water in quantities other than “survival mode,” so they can thrive.
Water has also shaped industry. Commerce between countries and continents, for example, boomed following innovations in seafaring technology, such as the compass. It was also water when boiled to produce steam, which ignited the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. Electricity, whether produced from hydro-electrical or nuclear energy, needs water to work—to generate it with the former, and to cool it with the later.
Water and Our Future
As I mentioned before, our supply of H2O is set. As in the past, this plentiful but finite resource will be a major factor that shapes our future. This will happen in more than one way. The first and most immediate way water will shape our future is through what happens to it because of the rise in temperatures caused by climate change. Indeed, the most visible effects of global warming will be felt through water. From the changing patterns of rain to the rise of sea levels produced by the fresh water stored in land-based glaciers melting into the sea, water will determine the quality of life we have in the decades to come. It could erase coastal cities, cause major migrations of entire populations, and shift political stability.
Water will also shape our future when technology becomes fully available that enables us to harness seawater for uses other than providing seafood and enabling maritime transportation. For example, innovations will enable us to convert water from the oceans into fresh water cheaply (de-salinization is too costly today), or harness enormous energy using processes like that of Hydrogen 2.0 to release hydrogen from its watery bond and make it work as a clean fuel.
H2O will continue to shape society for as long as mankind exists. Our next article in this series will explore some of the properties of this marvelous substance that has nurtured life and sustained civilization for millennia.
As the Hydrogen 2.0 ecosystem gains momentum, we’ll be sharing our views and insights on the new Hydrogen 2.0 Economy. We also update our blog every week with insightful and current knowledge in this growing energy field.