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By the pond

Drowning in tragedy, let us pray for water


Izaak Walton (1593-1683), an English writer known best for The Compleat Angler, a literary discourse on fishing, quoted a Spanish proverb that “rivers and inhabitants of the watery element were made for wise men to contemplate and fools to pass by without consideration.” Ah, bliss.

Today we have to add in idiots who dump in their trash, scam artists who trickle their oil down the culvert at night, research chemists tipping their wastes into the soil -- you know the list.

If there’s any of Walton’s watery inhabitants (fish) in my pond, they’re still in the sardine can.

The water in my pond isn’t fit to drink. It’s not deep enough to swim in nor clean enough to wash in.

However, two-thirds of it are covered with ice, and this day in late February, there’s a softness to the scene, the first dusting of winter snow Greater Beltway Washington has witnessed in 1999.

Here we have the topic: water, its quality, its availability, its essential utility to human and animal alike, and its pollutedness -- whether runoff from geese and cattle, or runoff from pesticides and industrial manufacturing.

Recounting the issues isn’t sufficient.

The greatest barrier to fully grasping any topic concerning the environment or ecology is the sheer scale of the problems and the complexities of the interrelationships. Solely to grapple with “water,” and see the “water problem” with some distance and clarity requires a huge canvas.

Let’s dip a toe into the inter-relatedness.

We pollute the skies from smokestacks and exhaust pipes, produce acid rain or just plain old dirty rain and drop it on land and watersheds and water alike.

This polluted rain adds its noxious mix to the other runoff such as pesticides and chemicals waiting to be washed into streams, rivers, tidewaters and bays -- all human water sources.

The runoff in turn kills the submerged aquatic vegetation (grasses and reeds) of the fish-breeding grounds, pollutes the bottom-feeders and the oyster beds. We become short on baby fish in a world already over-fished.

Not all rivers make it to the bay. River water is diverted to cities or agriculture, dammed for power and dredged for gravel. Many U.S. rivers are already subdivided beyond their sustainability as a river.

That’s telling us we’re using more than we’ve got.

Bodies of water, like lakes, have their own sustainability problems, from silt to strangers. Giant perch were introduced into Africa’s Lake Victoria to provide a bigger fish to harvest. The voracious perch have now consumed practically all the native species.

The perch also provide a new interrelatedness factor: What to do with giant perch once you’ve caught them? Smoke them so they can be transported to market. To smoke them, burn the trees. The land with no trees begins to wash into the lake. The lake begins to silt up. The vegetation and organisms that nurture and feed the fish are being destroyed. The silt alters the mineral content of the water.

Humans have a colossal, direct impact on water everywhere.

All of China’s rivers are polluted, and its huge population is water-short. It has 8 percent of the world’s renewable freshwater and 21 percent of the world’s population. Water shortages spell disease. Not only because good water sources are needed for drinking, but because a reliable water supply is essential to sanitation.

Around 1.5 billion people have no safe water and sanitation. Eighty percent of the people in India, 700 million people, defecate into buckets or onto open land. In Bangladesh it’s 90 percent.

Then comes more interrelatedness. Dirty ground water is drawn from feces-polluted sources. Where there’s no sanitation, dirty water is stored in dirty containers (dirty because they cannot be washed) open to airborne, parasite-, insect- and animal-borne diseases.

Those diseases are behind high infant and maternal mortality statistics.

So what do we all do, go to a quiet corner and slash our wrists? No. The facts are like flagellation. We bathe the wounds and head back into the fray. We’ve only got one life, and we’re hoping to hand life on to all those little kids -- including Western kids who, just for the moment, can believe that water is something to splash in at the beach, drop a fishing line into at the pond and have with ice cubes at home.

They’ll have to know at some point that we and they together have a responsibility to all those billions who don’t have water.

America has a recent blip of hope. The U.S. Geological Survey reports U.S. freshwater withdrawals have leveled off since 1980, despite a rising population.

Great news -- except that even at these levels, we still haven’t sufficient water, long-term.

And meanwhile? Well, former senator Paul Simon in his book, Tapped Out: the Coming World Crisis in Water and What We Can Do About It (Welcome Rain), favors desalination plants to increase supply but has little to offer by way of other action. He suggests writing to Congress (he knows better than that), or, hey ho! letters to the editor.

Prayer sounds more promising.

Here’s two from Prayers for the Common Good (Pilgrim Press) and two from Celtic Invocations (Vineyard Books).

From the Quran

It is He who sends down to you out of heaven
water of which you may drink and by which (grow)
trees, for you to pasture your herds, and
thereby He brings forth for you crops, and olives,
and palms, and vines, and all manner of fruit.

From Psalm 24

The earth is God’s and all that is in it,
the world and those who live in it;
for God has founded it on the seas,
and established it on the rivers.
Who shall ascend the hill of God?

Day of St. Columba

O God of the sea,
Put weed in the drawing wave
To enrich the ground
And shower on us food.

Fishing Blessing

In His name I sprinkle the water
Upon everything within my court.

Thou King of deeds and powers above,
Thy fishing blessing pour down on us.

I will sit me down with an oar in my grasp,
I will row me seven hundred and seven strokes.

I will cast down my hook,
The first fish which I bring up
In the name of Christ, King of the elements,
The poor shall have it at his wish.

The sentiment is reassuring: Begin with the poor. Alas, the the solution to poverty once was “Don’t give a man a fish, give him a rod and teach him to fish.” When there are no fish, that’s problematic. When there is no water, that’s tragic.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large.

National Catholic Reporter, March 19, 1999