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Reflections on Water

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V. V. Raman's Reflections On Water is presented in collaboration with the Religion Department Of The Chautauqua Institution.

The week of July 15-22 The Interfaith Lectures are focusing on Water: Life Source / Life Force.

Oh, the versatility of water! It stands still in lakes and ponds, calm and serene, except for ripples caused by a breeze or an intruding stone. It flows gently as stream or brook, gurgling as it skips over pebbles on the way. It gushes in a river, or meanders lazily. Sometimes the smoothly flowing river becomes a rapid, and then, may unexpectedly take a precipitous plunge, "rising and leaping, sinking and creeping, swelling and sweeping," as the poet Robert Southey wrote.

Water is at the root of our biology: Every cell contains water. Minerals would be unusable without the water in which their ions migrate. Water is in sweat and saliva, in blood and tears. Even our language is touched by water. Arguments hold no water, things are water-tight, one feels like fish out of water, we let off steam, etc.

Religions regard water as sacred. Water is cleanser of body and purifier of spirit. It has been deified as Varuna, Poseidon, Neptune and more. Like the Divine, it is pure in essence, imperceptible and transparent, pervades everywhere. Water flows from high to low, and serves human needs. The Divine too comes down from heaven to help us in our predicaments. In the religious framework, godly thoughts, like water, cleanse and purify.

We often think of water in its liquid form, cool and fresh on a hot summer day, or boiling in a kettle for a hot beverage. But water can also be in frozen stiffness as ice cubes and snowflakes, and as mammoth icebergs too. There is water in cushiony clouds, in air around and in deep underground. Water pours down as rain and flows on land as streams and rivers, and replenishes lakes and aquifers.

Periods without rain have caused draught and death. But many have also died from floods. Too much of a good thing can be as bad as too little of it.

Today we bring assistance to areas struck by draught or flood, people row in Venetian gondolas and experience spiritual elation dipping in sacred rivers. The Seine gracefully cuts through Paris, inspiring poets and lovers, as does the Danube and other rivers elsewhere. Ganga and Nile, Mississippi and Amazon sustain agriculture in the lands they course through.

But things are changing for the worse, symbolized, as it were, by the fact that millions walk around with potable water in plastic bottles. The glory days of pure water aplenty seem to be receding. True, in some countries households have more than one bathroom, and Jacuzzi to boot. But many regions suffer from acute water shortage. According to a U.N. report, cities in Europe are using groundwater at unsustainable rates. Today, more than 1 billion people in the world don't have easy access to safe drinking water.

Experts tell us that our water needs will grow by 40 percent in the near future, in a few decades some 3.5 billion people will be without sufficient fresh water. According to one dire prediction, by 2030 vast regions of the globe, now abundant in agriculture, will become unsuitable for farming. Vast oceans, home to countless creatures, and lovely lakes are being polluted. Rivers that have nurtured civilizations for millennia are threatened by the very civilizations they nurture. Fresh water is becoming scarcer by the day.

Modifying Coleridge, we might say.

Water, water, everywhere, yet not enough for all to drink,
Water crisis everywhere, of which we all must think.

Let us not be wasteful in watering lawns, cleaning cars and taking showers. Let us not be indifferent to the impending water scarcity in regions near and in distant. The hunger and thirst of fellow humans anywhere on earth should make every conscientious person cringe.

Even in the face of all this, we must not succumb to despair. Our species has an extraordinary resilience to survive. Many groups and governments and committed individuals are striving to find solutions. We need a better informed public, ideologically unfettered politicians, and enlightened leaders in every country. We must go beyond political bickering, religious hatred and parochial self-interest in confronting the challenges we face. With the knowledge and know-how that comes from science and the wisdom and goodwill that must flow from awakened religions, we should be able to deal with the predicted threats. We are assured by some that by successfully tapping the sun, we can provide enough energy to every nation in the world. Some day we will be desalinating sea-water inexpensively, and harvesting rain-bearing clouds that pour down wastefully over the seas.

While such projects are underway, let us continue to gaze at shifting clouds in the sky, rejoice in pearly dews on tender leaves, marvel at falling snow and dangling icicles, delight in a glass of cold water when it is unduly hot, swim where we can, boil water for tea and coffee, for soup and spaghetti. Let us be grateful for the water cycle that enables snow and shower, irrigation and drinking water. For, as Leonardo da Vinci tersely said, "Water is the driving force of all nature."