words by willow defebaugh
photograph by ben toms
Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an expansive look at the latest events in climate and culture—and how it all fits together.
“In one drop of water are found all the secrets of all the oceans; in one aspect of You are found all the aspects of existence.”
Tom Robbins once posed the question: If our planet is 70 percent water, then why do we call ourselves earthlings and not waterlings? Not only that, our bodies are up to 70 percent water —for newborns, it’s more like 80 percent—and the water-to-salt ratio of our blood is astoundingly similar to that of seawater. Humankind has fought and fretted over where we come from, but perhaps the more pertinent question is: Where did water come from?
When the Earth was forming, it was a disk of gas and rock clusters and debris that slowly began to come together. And while water was likely present, it would have been too hot to condense into liquid—meaning that our ocean did not form alongside the planet. The majority of scientific research suggests that water was delivered to our planet by comets and asteroids, which can contain enough ice to create our ocean over time. You could say that water was gifted to the Earth—and from that gift, all life sprang.
When you understand something as being a gift, that awareness changes how you treat it. Suddenly, it becomes precious. And make no mistake, water is the most precious commodity on Earth. The world may be 70 percent water, but only three percent of it is freshwater, and two percent of that is trapped in ice at the poles. This means that our entire species relies on just one percent of water. Given that, you’d think we might be more mindful of how we are handling this gift—but the world water crisis will be the defining crisis of our lifetimes. It’s already here.
According to the Vox series Explained, the amount of water we consume for personal use—drinking, washing our hands, flushing the toilet—accounts for only eight percent of water usage, compared to the 70 percent that goes to agriculture and 22 percent to industry. 130 liters of water go into one cup of coffee, when you factor in the water used for its ingredients. The average burger? 1,650 liters. Your cotton t-shirt? That’s another 2,500 liters.
As water resources analyst Betsy Otto says, “There’s no sense of value to what is really an incredible and invaluable resource in water, but then when we run out, we find what the cost of water truly is.” Mexico City loses almost half of its drinking water due to leaky pipes. We dump two million tons of sewage and agricultural and industrial waste into our world’s waters every single day. It’s no wonder that by 2040, most of the world is projected not to have enough water to meet year-round demand unless things change.
But things can change. In the face of its own water crisis two years ago, Cape Town was preparing for “Day Zero,” when it would have to become the first major city to shut off public water and ration it out to citizens. Then something extraordinary happened: the people of Cape Town came together and were able to reduce the city’s daily water consumption by over half. This, coupled with significant rainfall, led to the indefinite postponement of Day Zero.
We are water. And like water, we are capable of changing course, of shifting form to flow around any obstacle, of wearing down even stone. Like water, our existence is cyclical. From the ocean we rise as mist, and from the sky we fall as individual drops, carrying the sea within us, flowing back to source. And like water, our lives—all lives—are a gift. What would it look like if we started treating them as such?