Do You Respect the Elixir of Life?

03/21/2011 08:23 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Many years ago, three San hunters and I trekked across the arid Kalahari Desert in southern Africa on a searingly hot morning at the end of the dry season. We had stalked duiker since dawn searching unsuccessfully for the elusive antelope in the shady thickets where they settled as the sun climbed in the sky. My companion moved effortlessly, apparently without fatigue or thirst as I paused to take regular swigs from my water bottle. We came to a dry watercourse and a solitary grove of trees that cast the only shade for miles around in the seemingly waterless landscape. The men paused to rest. One of them examined the dry streambed and dug into the sand with his wooden digging stick. At first, the soil was dry, then damp, then, miraculously, water appeared. The hunter crouched, swept the precious liquid up with his hands, and drank deeply. His companions followed; so did I, allowing the water to flow over my sweating face and hands. I have never felt such a close, sensuous connection with the most vital elixir of life. My companions had found water where I thought there was none. As I got to know them better, I learned something of a new way of looking at the landscape -- as an edible and drinkable persona, rich in liquid-bearing plants and hidden water. I realized that San existence depended on the distribution of water across the landscape and on the ancient traditions that passed water knowledge from one generation to the next. Since that defining moment, water has always had a profound significance to me...

Water: it caresses and comforts us, provides sustenance and refreshment, is something that humanity has cherished since the beginning of history, and means something different to everyone. Water gives us pleasure and has profound sacred qualities. It figures large in many holy and special places -- the soft murmuring of a sacred spring at Delphi in Greece, the reflecting pools of India's Taj Mahal, riffling streams in the gardens at Granada, Spain, the reservoirs that surround Angkor Wat in Cambodia, symbolizing the primordial waters of the universe, the font for holy water in Christian cathedrals. Water evokes serenity, harmony and peaceful existence, the very essence of life itself, commemorated in the past by magnificent shrines and elaborate rituals in honor of the deities that ensure the continuity of water -- and life.

Water: we turn a faucet and it is there for drinking, something we take completely for granted. We are indifferent to it. Years ago, Rachel Carson wrote: "water along with other resources has become the victim of [human] indifference." Of all natural resources, water is the least appreciated. We assume that fresh drinking water is ours to enjoy and to use with dazzling promiscuity in any way we wish.

Driveways watered daily, golf courses and huge lawns shimmering in 100-degree heat, suburban tracts paving acre after acre of desert -- few people think about where water comes from. They did in the past. They had to. Taking water for granted is something fairly new, which we can lay at the feet of the classical Greeks, who were maestros of water management, and the Romans, who used aqueducts to fill public baths and to flush nearby communal toilets, the Starbucks of the day where people conducted a great deal of their (non-personal hygiene) business.

For almost 10,000 years, humans everywhere relied on gravity for most water, on a principle enumerated pompously by German engineer Leonhard Euler in 1747: "Before digging a canal, you must be well assured that one of the extremities is more elevated than the other." Gravity is a simple principle pursued with exquisite care by our forebears. Most ancient water management and irrigation was far simpler than we assume. Until the Assyrians and the Sassanians tried large scale taming of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, almost all irrigation was in village hands. They paid taxes in grain to their rulers, but ran their own canals. Thus water was closely tied to family and village. Ultimately, it's a local commodity. This is still true for millions of people today. The Marakwet, farmers and cattle people in northwestern Kenya, still water their fields with sloping furrows and distribute the water by mutual agreement. Water is something to be conserved and passed out with great care, as it has been for thousands of years. But for us water has become an anonymous commodity -- and we feel entitled to unlimited amounts of it. In a warming world where history tells us that higher temperatures are associated with prolonged droughts, the alarm flags of pending water shortages flap in the wind. Yet most of us living in drier environments are in denial about the impending crisis. Even in good rainfall years, water for all California's needs is in short supply. There are calls for desalinization plants to supplement nature's supplies, for additional dams and more long distance aqueducts. All of this misses the point. The world's water supply is finite and unchanging. Its distribution doesn't match the areas of most need.

It's only now that water conservation is moving to center stage. In the future, all of us will have to make do with less. And we can learn from our forebears, who lived in worlds where water was often scarce, frequently hard to obtain, and treated with great respect. They lived long before the days of pumps and artesian wells, but they knew everything there was to know about making do with finite water supplies and about the force that propelled it -- gravity. The water managers of the past knew that water is a vital and pitiless force in human life -- and something to be treated with respect, even revered. So history tells us we need to respect water, which is, most emphatically, not just a commodity -- which may mean, among other things, playing golf on clay.

Reprinted with permission of Bloomsbury Press.