Atrophy of the Well

Atrophy of the Well

Few of us can now imagine a world without freshwater, but look to the future, when the scarcity of this most basic commodity will profoundly change our lives.


The world is always at war. If not over religion, then over politics. Or freedom of expression, or civil rights, or pride or rebellion or revenge. But we have never had to fight over water.

I ask no rhetorical questions in this essay. I ask for your eyes. The water we drink is clear, colorless and odorless. There are no marks for us to recognize it by, no tart taste or unique tangy grapes or bite, sweet, spicy; no sunny, buttercup yellow, bright orange, dark brown, glorious dark red–and yet we never forget it. It is a simple and unremarkable compound.

It is not a foreseeable future for many of us, not when there are lush hills, deep wells, rivers running high and too much rainfall. We are freely given water in a McDonald’s paper cup or in a wine glass. Not even for the Californians, who are used to their brittle-looking black elms, weeds and wildfires, is it easy to imagine.

Look at the future. Look at the generations; see what we will see–a dry, barren future that is achingly empty. Put your wars aside; a God will not make it rain. Look to the future, see us standing there, brown and leathery-skinned, our shoulders always hot, necks long from craning to check a cloudless sky for a change in winds or shift in humidity, our tongues lolling out of our mouths like dogs.

Notice how we blink so much; there’s no other way to keep out the dust. The sand, the dirt, the unbearable dryness is in our noses, hair, lungs. Look at the ground we stand on, so white in the light with cracks and fault lines like craters. Nothing can grow here.

When a God does not make it rain, people will not torch homes or blow up buildings and cars (because there is nothing to put out the fire). No one will leave his country for war in another desert.

I think instead people will pray. If we arrive at this future, we should pray. Anger will fester without a balm, and then there will be lines, treaties, contracts, promises of bonds among nations with water. There will be underhanded deals, there will be people who seek to acquire power and become water magnates and control the distribution of water, always with their own interests and survival in mind.

Water will be the source of peace, and the absence of it will be desolation. Those who have it will think themselves superior to those who don’t; wealth and poverty will be redefined.

There is a future lying in wait that grows selfishness and harvests war. There will be water czars and water fields, and there will be someone who stands at the edge of the ocean and hates it because for all the things man has built, he still can’t create water from the heat of the sun, or steal it from the salt of the ocean.

There are chronic droughts in Ethiopia, and in overpopulated areas of China, too. Nations won’t be spared by the strength of their economy now or by their military might. There are water tankers in Kishangarh, a district of Rajasthan in India; people have to buy water to live. Parents send their children to retrieve and pump water; it is more important than education.

There is not enough safe water for people to drink in New Orleans. The United Nations recently took out the world’s first insurance policy on Mother Nature; the money will be used for recovery and aid. But there is no relief for a dry tongue.

What freshwater we have is unevenly distributed across the world: an abundant luxury in one region of a country, and dangerously scarce the next village over. We have been extravagant with water, and now more and more freshwater sources are becoming contaminated, polluted by mismanagement, political corruption and an overrunning of industries.

There was a time when the idea of buying water was like the idea of buying air–an idea, and a crazy one at that. We have a right to our lives; water is a right guaranteed to us in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. We won’t be able to slake our thirsts on regret for past carelessness. What water will do to us is like the substance itself: both soothing and destructive in its nature.

I said I would ask no rhetorical questions in this essay. It is clear to me that the unadorned truth is more starkly powerful than false rhetoric; there is no need to try and compose a provocative, beautifully inspirational question to stir someone to consider the worth of water. I lied. I ask just one: Can you see?

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