Kevin Costner’s film Waterworld, in which he also plays the main role of the Mariner, a lone drifter on his trimaran, creates the end-time scenario of a world nearly completely submerged in water. In this world it’s not water but soil that is the most valuable commodity.

And a map, revealing the location of a real island in the middle of a world of endless water, tattooed on the back of a young girl, becomes the object of desire.

Always available

But things can also turn out differently. And that is when water, not soil, becomes a scarce commodity, essential to survival. This is a shortage that we have never experienced in our latitudes. But that can change.

We turn on the tap and out it flows, this valuable commodity. And what flows is high quality, purified drinking water. But water that comes from the tap is no different to money that comes out of a cash machine. Something can only come out if it’s already there.

Money can be printed if need be. Water, on the other hand, cannot be produced artificially. It’s a natural resource that can be stored but not artificially increased.

A limited resource

Ever since I was in Uganda a few years ago with the MINDKISS Project, I look at the water taps in my apartment with different eyes. I was already economical in my use of water beforehand – or so I thought.  Yet there I experienced what it means when every drop of water really counts and is used over and over again before being eventually disposed of.

There I experienced just how much effort it takes to get water for drinking and cooking. And how sparingly water is used there. Perhaps not in the luxury hotels where tourists are supposed to feel at home. But all the more in the households of the so-called simple people who had received me as their guest. It made me feel ashamed.

People in other regions of Africa and the world experience daily what it means to have to make do with a minimum of water. Here we live in a so-called temperate climate zone and have no idea of such restrictions. We have become accustomed to such luxury and take for granted what in truth is great good fortune. Yet nothing in this world can be taken for granted.  And every good fortune can turn.

Direct consumption

Water is an elixir of life. Humans can survive many days without food but only a few days without water.

The earth is a blue planet. About 70% of its surface is covered by water. Yet this water is salt water, unsuitable for consumption.

Humans need drinkable fresh water to live and survive. Yet nobody needs 120 litres of drinkable water a day in order to quench their thirst or prepare their food. Nevertheless, a German consumes on average 120 litres of drinking water of the very best quality per day. On average a maximum of 2 litres per person is drunk or rather less. This leaves 118 litres of drinking water which we use each and every day for showering, bathing, washing the dishes, doing the laundry, watering the garden, and even for flushing the toilet.

The infrastructure of our water supply dates back to the times when human awareness of the limited nature of resources was still in a prenatal state. As an expert told me recently when I asked him about this, it is still not possible to separate pipes of drinking water from those aimed at general consumption.

Indirect consumption

But that is not all. Everything we consume and use each day also involves indirect water consumption. To this day no product label indicates how much water was used in the production of a foodstuff or manufactured product.

The cultivation of citrus fruits and almonds in certain regions of the world alone accounts for half of the “green water” available worldwide. Green water is the water that naturally enters the ground through rainfall. In temperate climate zones like the one we live in here in Germany, many agricultural products can be brought to harvest with green water.

“Blue Water” is water drawn from lakes, rivers or even from the groundwater to be used in irrigation systems. An article in Perspective Daily magazine which is well worth reading gives a further perspective on this.

 Bad cheques

Just as the resources of a bank need to be covered so that money can be withdrawn, the reservoir of available drinking water must also be covered so that this precious commodity will continue to flow from the tap for everyone when we turn it on.

The size of this reservoir is shown by the groundwater level which has dropped continuously and at an alarming rate in recent years. As though this isn’t enough, the quality of the groundwater which has collected in recent decades has also deteriorated significantly. And this is solely due to the fact that we not only regard water as a seemingly unlimited resource, but also abuse the streams and rivers that supply us as garbage dumps into which we tip not only the disposable waste of everyday life but also toxic waste.

The after-effects of earlier decades of the 20th century when, for example, the river Rhine near Basel, Ludwigshafen and elsewhere showed up in new colours everyday –depending on which wastewater had just been dumped by local chemical companies – have fortunately disappeared from the Rhine waters today, but they are still present in the groundwater. The toxins that are now entering the groundwater will remain there for many decades to come and will reduce the quality of the water for our children and grandchildren.

Sunlight is bliss

When I hear people complaining about the “bad summer” these days, I can sort of understand them. At the same time I wonder why rain is so unpopular. Ask any farmer and he will tell you that the correct measure of sun and rain is needed for a harvest to be brought in.

Just as we simply let water run out of a tap, the range of fruit and vegetables in the supermarket also seems to us as though it came out of a tap – and as neatly packaged as possible in plastic that is difficult or impossible to recycle and for whose production quantities of water were also used. When a summer in which not a drop of rain falls for weeks and temperatures climb to over 30 degrees Celsius every day is described as a super summer with which everyone is happy, then quite frankly I feel queasy.

Farmers are still trying to counteract the drying out of their fields by pumping precious groundwater out of the earth only to have at least half of it evaporate into the air via a 360 degree sprinkler system. What a waste! Fortunately many farmers over the past year have introduced a different kind of artificial irrigation system which allows water to reach the roots of the plant close to the ground.

To avoid any misunderstandings: of course I too love summer and the sun. But also, even at a very early age, I also loved walking in the rain without an umbrella and I still can relax to the soothing sound of rain on the roof or the leaves of bushes and trees.

Rain brings blessings

We should not fret about rain, if it falls in moderation. Never. Because the rain fills the reservoir of groundwater from which we, nature and not least of all our descendants must one day supply ourselves with drinking water in order to live at all. If we do not learn to think beyond the horizon of our present lives into the future and a few decades ahead, our descendants will find a world in which what we once took for granted will have ceased to exist. Do we want that? I, for one, do not.

Extreme temperatures of 50 degrees on the east coast of Canada or extremely heavy rainfall that turns peaceful streams and rivers into flash floods within the shortest time, that sweep away or destroy everything that lies in their path may still seem like singular exceptions to us at the moment. But they could also be the harbingers of climate change. Well, you might say, extreme climate changes have occurred again and again in the history of evolution. That’s true. Only this is the first one that we are able to foresee at an early stage due to the development of our technology and thus we have the chance to slow it down and mitigate it but at the same time prepare ourselves for its catastrophic effects – be it by protecting the land from water or, on the other hand, by securing water for the land.

 Water as a commodity?

The market economy teaches us that the demand for a commodity determines its value and that the scarcity of a commodity increases its value – provided that the commodity is sought after on the market and is in demand. When soil is in short supply, soil is valuable. This is shown in the film Waterworld. When water is scarce, water becomes valuable.

But if water becomes valuable to us only because it is scarce, then we have a problem. Water is valuable in itself. And always has been. We only have to understand this and treat it accordingly – respectfully, carefully and sparingly.

More Dagmar Woyde-Koehler