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What does water have to do with ethnobotany? Nothing, at all really, except that water is the essence of life. Without it this planet would be as dead as a speckle of space dust - no plants, no animals and certainly no humans. Life originated in the oceans and only gradually adapted to higher and drier grounds, yet no living organism has ever lost its connection and dependency on this quintessential element of life. Without water life shrivels up and dies. Even the hardiest of desert dwelling organisms need water to survive such extreme conditionseven, if only in miniscule amounts. They managed to adapt by developing special water storage structures and thick protective skin that prevents them from drying up.

stream (122K) Without water seeds could not germinate and nothing could grow. Water is the lifeblood of the planet. It acts as a matrix for nutrients, plays a key role in the process of photosynthesis, which transforms sunlight into a form of energy that all living things can utilize. Water also cleanses and detoxifies. Water is continuously recycled. Its cycle is intricately linked to the carbon cycle and both are connected to plants, most importantly, to trees.

Most of the water on our planet is contained in the oceans. Only a small fraction is fresh water and most of that is stored in the polar ice caps. Fresh water and ocean water are tied in a constant exchange as rivers run towards the oceans and oceans continually evaporate to form clouds, which eventually rain off over the land. However, apparently most of that rain falls within 150 miles of the shore.

What makes rain fall further in land? Trees 'attract' rain and coastal forests play a key role. Trees, by means of their foliage and trunks reduce the impact of the rainwater falling on the ground. Thus rainwater that has been 'captured and harnessed' by trees and plants can actually be absorbed by the soil rather than pounding the earth and washing away top soil as surface run off. Once in the ground the water is filtered and reaches the groundwater. Here again, trees play a key role in pumping it up again, utilizing it in the process of photosynthesis and evaporating it back into the atmosphere, where it again can form clouds that are carried inland and can rain off somewhere else. Trees also prevent erosion, which in turn binds top soil, thus preventing it from getting washed into the sea or rivers.

water pollution (57K)Water has been much on everybody's mind recently: The oil disaster in the Gulf that has polluted not just a vast swathe of the ocean and all the life within it, but also wreaked havoc on the lives of those who in turn depended on that marine life. In Europe and North America there have been intense heat waves, endangering crops and wildlife. In China, India and Pakistan on the other hand there has been so much rain that hundreds of people have died in floods and dams threatened to break.

Water is always on our minds, whether there is too much or not enough of it. Just recently, on July 28th, 2010, after many years of contentious debate, the UN has declared access to clean water and adequate sanitation 'a human right', because of its fundamental importance to all other human activity. However, sadly, the notion was not universally supported. Notable the US, Canada and Britain, Australia and 37 other countries abstained.

It is insupportable that in the 21st century there are still almost 900 million people in the world today who do not have access to clean drinking water and more than double that number who do not have adequate sanitation, which of course has a direct impact on health in those regions: 2 million people, mostly children, die every year due to causes that are directly or indirectly related to not having access to clean water. This is quite unacceptable, though I am not convinced that declaring it 'a human right' will do much to change the situation. At least, perhaps, it will focus attention on the problem and raise awareness.

Personally, I would be happier to call it 'a human responsibility'. We should not be tempted to look at this problem from only this one distressing angle. Yes, access to clean drinking water for all would immediately help to reduce a whole host of problems, especially health and poverty related problems in the poorest countries. But this is not the whole story.

Rights and responsibility are two sides of the same coin. In this case the right to clean water and sanitation implies the responsibility of stewardship. If people across the globe feel that clean water is a fundamental right, we all, and I mean EVERYBODY, must become a steward of our water resources. This means that we must stop polluting it, stop wasting it and that we must consider the big picture in ecological terms and tackle the most fundamental root problems that threaten the sustainability of our water supply: climate change and deforestation.

desert (46K)Deforestation is a significant factor in the complex processes that are causing the current climate change. As we have seen, trees not only absorb CO2 and thus act as carbon sinks, but they also play a significant role in affecting patterns of rainfall. Deforestation ultimately creates deserts - a more or less waterless environment - whether we claim water as a human right or not. Stewardship and holistic strategies that take the big picture into account are the only way forward that has any chance of creating sustainable solutions to the grave dilemmas we are facing now - not to mention those that will be faced by future generations, should we fail to adopt this approach now.

Further Reading:

Climate Institute: Water
Climate Lab Permaculture and Sanity: Trees and the Water Cycle
Acience Blog The water cycle Trees attract Rain
UN General Assembly declares access to clean water a human right

And, some more food for thought from the guys at 'the story of stuff'; The Truth About Bottled Water
This is a good place to start taking responsibility and become more aware of how you use water in your life. Quit buying bottled water!

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