WHAT IF THE TAP RAN DRY?

A guest post by Peter Stark & Amy Ragsdale, writers and adventurers

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Stages of dehydration, or “desert thirst,” as named by early desert travelers and prospectors: clamorous, cotton mouth, swollen tongue, shrivel tongue, blood sweat, living death

You’re seated under a lone acacia tree.  A few hours after sunrise, you’re grateful for the shade. The temperature is 105 degrees F. The shimmering air burns your throat and nostrils, dries and cracks your lips. You raise the goatskin sack of water, a gerba, to your mouth. The water trickles cool and moist down your papery throat. Already the gerba feels lighter. Maybe 10 pounds, about a gallon, 15 or 20 cups. A person your size normally needs eight to ten cups of water a day. Walking in desert heat, however, you can lose ten cups in two hours. You look out. Sand flows to the horizon like a great dry ocean. You look up. The sky is the purest blue. You feel a flutter of panic. As the Sun climbs, waves of heat roll off the glaring sand and push into your shady pool. Already your thirst seems bottomless. What are you going to do?

BLOOD, SWEAT, AND TEARS: WHY DOES LIFE NEED WATER?

Humans need water to survive—lakes, rivers, and oceans of it. We evolved out of a watery environment—first as tiny organisms drifting about in the salty sea; then as more complex creatures with mouths and fins, eyes and brains; then crawling up on land with arms, legs, lungs.

Now we haul this original watery environment along with us inside our breathable, waterproof sacks of skin. Our bodies consist of 60 percent water, or roughly 10 gallons inside an average male, 9 gallons (about 144 cups) inside a 125-pound female. Our thirst kicks in at only about two cups down, and we perish if we lose more than 15 to 25 percent of our body weight, or about 40 to 50 cups. We need to constantly replenish our internal reservoir by drinking and eating. The bucketful of blood that runs through our veins is mostly water. It carries the oxygen we breath and the fuels we eat to the millions of tiny cells, or engines, that power our bodies. It sweeps away the toxic wastes that these engines produce, like the exhaust of a car, and expels them.

Water keeps our tissues—lips, tongue, throat, stomach, heart, lungs—moist  and pliant and full instead of brittle and cracking and shriveling .When the body overheats, water, in the form of sweat, serves as the body’s cooling system. All life, from the tiniest microorganism to the largest elephant, needs this miraculous substance, water.

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If all the planet’s water filled a one-gallon milk container, less than a teaspoon of it would be freshwater

You look east. You know there’s a village, maybe three days’ walk away. Could you reach it, trudging through soft sand, under burning Sun, drinking from the gerba as you go? You look north—vast emptiness. West—a distant wall of rocky mountains. South — a shimmering lake! You blink and look again. The lake has vanished—a mirage.  Scanning, you see not a bush, not a tree, not a blade of grass. Only this lone acacia. You realize it, too, needs water! Eagerly, you dig your fingers into loose sand, noticing the skin splitting along your fingernails, a sign of your tissues drying and shrinking. Your body is down four cups of water—2 percent of your body weight—the “clamorous” stage of desert thirst. You paw frantically at the sand, burying your arm up to your shoulder. Dry sand. Panting, exhausted, arm down the hole, face in the sand, you gaze toward the jagged mountains and spy a faint wisp of cloud. Moisture? Then people? The western mountains appear closer than the eastern village. Is there enough water in the gerba? Maybe if you walked at night? Would that save enough water to risk it?

THE SUPERHERO OF SUBSTANCES: WHAT MAKES WATER SO SPECIAL?
Water is a shapeshifter with superpowers. It can easily morph from a liquid pooling on the ground, to a gas rising into the air, to rain droplets and snow crystals drifting down from clouds, to a solid that floats atop ponds and lakes. The catalyst for these transformations is temperature change, which creates the cycle of water continually evaporating into the air and falling to earth again. The ultimate transformer, water shapeshifts as effortlessly as an ice cube melting in your glass. It is also the ultimate dissolver, pulling apart chunks of other substances, like salt, into their smallest molecules; and it plays a critical role in the chemical reactions that build our bodies and give us fuel to burn. Water takes its liquid form at temperatures that exist over much of our planet’s surface and seeks out earth’s low spots, drawn downward by gravity. Water can even flow underground, through soil and porous rock. Ancient poets, such as the author of the Chinese Tao Te Ching, recognized water’s powerful, mysterious properties:

Nothing in the world is softer or weaker than water
Yet nothing is better at overcoming the hard and strong.


Ancient Romans mixed a slime from pig fat, olive oil, and fig juice to grease their aqueducts and ease the flow of water from distant mountains to arid cities.

As stars pop in the blackened night sky, you wrap your light, white robe around you and take a pull from the gerba. You shake it. Less than a gallon, maybe 9 cups. You step out onto cool sand. The air is almost cold. You swish along toward the jagged silhouette of mountain peaks, feeling fresher, encouraged. With the endless repetition of steps, time and distance dissolve. Only your thirst accompanies you—thick saliva, tight lump in your throat, tongue sticking to the roof of your mouth. The water in your body has fallen to 6 percent deficit, 14 cups down, moving from “cotton mouth” toward “swollen tongue.” You’d noticed it was awkward to drink, your tongue clumsily in the way. Walking hypnotically, you glance up. The mountain silhouette has disappeared! Are you walking in the wrong direction? You look up at the starry sky. Relieved, you recognize Orion, the Big Dipper, and vaguely remember that rule of thumb: If you draw a line between two stars of Orion’s Belt, and add five more lengths, you’ll find the unmoving North Star. If you keep the North Star on your right, you’ll be heading west. Or was the rule to measure from the cup of the Big Dipper? You hesitate. Which one is it?

TAKE ME TO THE RIVER: HOW HAS HUMAN INNOVATION MADE IT POSSIBLE FOR US TO LIVE IN WATER-POOR PLACES?

The Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert survive fierce dry seasons by digging a root called bi! bulb, like a giant potato, out of which they squeeze drinking water. One of the original hunter-gatherer societies, some Bushmen still roam, following scant and shifting water resources. However, about 10,000 years ago, with the invention of agriculture, humans began to settle more firmly in place. Their sprouting fields and thirsty livestock demanded a reliable supply of water. Instead of following the water, people brought the water to them. They dug irrigation ditches to channel a steady flow from nearby rivers to their fields, an innovation that allowed humans to use land more efficiently, settle closer together, and produce more food than was necessary to feed their own families. These food surpluses and community projects, like irrigation, spawned more complex government and a religious hierarchy, allowing those who didn’t have to raise food for themselves the opportunity to become warriors, artists, merchants, and craftspeople, and to create the first cities. In this way, finding, storing, and distributing water played a central role in the rise of civilization.

Today’s urbanized society demands water in staggering quantities to quench the needs of large-scale agriculture and industrial manufacturing, to keep lawns and parks and golf courses green, and to meet our personal water needs for bathing, cooking, and drinking. A thousand years BCE, the Persians (the people of what is now Iran) invented a system of hand-dug tunnels—qanats—to tap underground aquifers in mountain regions and transport the water hundreds of miles under baking hot land without losing it to evaporation. In US and European cities today, we open a tap and expect an infinite supply of water to pour into our glasses and fill our tubs. We don’t see the web of pipelines that carries that water to us, like the old Persian qanats and Roman aqueducts, and allows us to build huge cities out in the desert, such as Phoenix and Los Angeles. In some parts of the world, however, there are still no pipes. The transport system is still the human foot. A billion people in the developing world, usually women and girls, walk an average of 3.5 miles every day to a river or spring and carry home as much water as they can, balancing a goat skin, clay pot, or plastic can on their heads. In Mali, at the edge of the Sahara Desert, the average person uses about 3 gallons of water a day (about a bucketful), while the average American uses 156 gallons a day (3 or 4 bathtubs’ full). Human ingenuity has made it possible for us to live in comfort in inhospitable places. Will this serve us well in the end?


Each year the Earth’s humans drink enough water to drain a lake 25 miles across and 10 feet deep, and pee enough to fill one million Olympic-sized swimming pools

The sky turns pink at dawn, silhouetting the mountains again. You’re closer now. You’ve come to a wide, shallow trench. It looks like a dry riverbed, twisting down from the mountains, studded with reddish boulders. You trudge along the sandy bottom, exhausted. Stony peaks burst into flame with the Sun’s first rays. The heat strikes, a force pushing you down, making you lightheaded, stumbling. Your heart is pounding. The skin of your face is tightening over your cheekbones, your nose shrinking and toughening like jerky. You fumble to the shade of a boulder, tilt the gerba into your mouth. You could easily pour its entire contents between your fissured lips, down your rasping throat, into your belly’s empty pit to nourish your shriveling body. The gerba is down to a quart—4 cups. The water in your body is at a 10 percent water deficit, 24 cups down, moving toward “shrivel tongue.” The drying tissues of your inner ear snap and drum, your blood is thickening, while your skin tingles and numbs. Your forearm looks like a vessel full of liquid. You restrain the urge to bite it. Out of the corner of your eye, you sense motion. A lizard. Bam! You nail it, sink your teeth into its soft belly, suck out the moist organs and tissues, savor their warm, sweetish liquids. You slump back against the boulder, exhausted, and slip into delirious sleep.

TROUBLED WATER: WHAT TO DO WHEN HUMAN WASTE PILES UP?

If thirsty enough, humans will drink almost anything——blood, urine, seawater, or, in the case of desert nomads, they will slice open the stomachs of their camels and drink the liquid from the wet, green, half-digested pulp. If nothing else is available, humans will also drink—sometimes unknowingly—contaminated water. Many of the world’s greatest outbreaks of disease result from this.

When humans were widely dispersed in hunter-gatherer or early agricultural societies, this was much less of a problem. The Earth simply took care of their daily output of human waste; the soil reabsorbed it or rivers, streams, and oceans swept it away, dispersing and diluting it. But as humans piled into densely packed cities during the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions, their daily waste piled up, too. Initially, they simply tossed the contents of their slop buckets out windows and doors into the street, where, in some cities, pedestrians picked their way on stepping stones over puddles and ditches brimming with urine, feces, and wash water.

In the mid-1800s in London, during a cholera outbreak, a Sherlock Holmes-like physician, Dr. John Snow, mapped individual cases of the disease. He traced them to the cesspool of a single house where the wash water from the dirty diapers of a cholera-infected baby seeped into a nearby public drinking well. Formerly thought to be caused by breathing “miasma”—bad air—cholera and other diseases were instead linked to contaminated drinking water. London and other major cities engineered tunnels to drain raw sewage away into rivers or spread over fields, known as “sewage farms.” While many ancient civilizations had flush toilets and underground sewers, it wasn’t until the turn of the twentieth century that the sewage treatment plant was invented to separate waste from water; however, many urbanized parts of the world still cannot afford this technology.

As global population grows, the problem of what to do with human waste is more complicated than ever. There are 7.5 billion people on Earth, each producing, on average, 6 cups of pee and half a cup of poop daily, all of which has to go somewhere. While convenient and sanitary, flush toilets use a lot of clean water—for most people about 25 gallons a day. About 4,500 children die every day from diseases carried by dirty drinking water, but we’re flushing billions of gallons of good drinking water down the toilet.

Human waste is elemental. To stop it, we’d have to shut down the engines in our bodies. With time, as the Earth’s population grows, it’s only going to increase. So how do we to turn it from a liability into an asset? A composting toilet that heats or cools the house?


Every year, more people die from unsafe drinking water than from all forms of violence combined.

The cool of night revives you. You stand up shakily and walk—slowly, effortfully—up the dry riverbed, under a sliver of moon. By dawn, you reach the mountain’s foot, where the great ocean of sand meets slanting rock. The riverbed disappears into a massive crack in the wall—a canyon. Your gerba hangs empty. A headache tightens around your skull like an iron band. Your heart beats quickly, weakly, struggling to push the thickening blood through your veins. The water in your body is down to 13 percent deficit, 32 cups down, moving from “blood sweat” toward “living death.” Lurching into the canyon’s mouth, you slam your knee against a boulder. The pain seems distant, unimportant. No blood oozes from the gash. You’ll do anything to put liquid in your mouth. You haven’t had to urinate in hours, maybe days. You try to pee in your hand. A few dark-orange droplets. You relish the wetness on your tongue.  Steadying yourself, you wind between rock walls, across sandy patches. You pass a low, thorny bush. Water? If you stop now you’ll never move again. The canyon splits. You circle, wavering, perplexed.

BLUE GOLD: WHAT NOW

One of the most elaborate civilizations in human history—the Mayan of Central America—flourished for hundreds of years. Then it suddenly and mysteriously fell to pieces. Archaeologists have unearthed ancient Mayan stone temples and civic buildings from beneath jungle vines. A leading theory is that the Maya’s leveling of forests to plant irrigated fields and raise massive structures helped trigger a severe drought. Crops failed, famine arose, social unrest broke out, warfare erupted, and quickly much of Mayan civilization collapsed.

Water, “blue gold,” is the latest hotly contested commodity, even more than oil. Why? It’s disappearing—either literally drying up or becoming so toxic it’s undrinkable. At the same time, humans are demanding more and more of it. This complicated and profound issue falls into neat pairs:

Water is disappearing in two ways: quantity and quality
Because of two pressures: population growth and climate change
It’s disappearing on two fronts: on the surface and underground
The biggest drains on water are: agriculture and industry
The pollution that contaminates it comes from two types of sources: point and nonpoint

“The problem is not that there is not enough (or clean enough) water on the planet; it’s that the water does not fall when and where we need it,” say Penn State water experts, adding, ”It is simply too expensive, impractical, and energy intensive to move large volumes of water across oceans or between continents….”

Irrigation takes more water than any other human use.  On average, to grow the food to feed a person requires 70 times more water than he or she uses for personal daily needs.  Societies in semi-arid environments such as the Maya, which rely on complex irrigation systems to grow their food, are particularly vulnerable when the tap runs dry.

Over thousands of years, humans have found innovative solutions to water scarcity as long as supplies have shrunk gradually. But a suddenly plummeting water supply, as in the Mayan case, can destroy whole societies. Centuries ago, the well-diggers and dam- and aqueduct-builders were the innovators. Today a new generation of water innovators is rising. Some work with technological solutions—micro-irrigation, precise drip systems, urban rainwater harvest, and seawater desalinization. Other innovators harness economic forces—market pricing, water tariffs, and cap and trade arrangements. Still other innovators employ education to address both conservation and pollution—labeling how much water goes into the manufacturing of various foods and products and what not to flush down your toilet or put on your lawn. Others foster social change—employing women in rural communities as advisors to locate water and devise delivery systems. One day, the traditional African woman balancing a large jug of water on her head may manage her village’s micro-irrigation system; we all may be using waterless toilets; an as-yet-unknown inventor may discover a water substitute for industrial uses.

It is certain that we have to change. The Earth is facing a water crisis. How could you be one of the innovators of the Water Revolution?

You hear a flutter. The drumming inside your ears? But then you see a flock of cliff swallows disappear up the canyon’s right branch. Morning and evening, birds go to water to drink. You follow them, your breathing in raspy groans. It would be so much easier to lie down beneath these tall cliffs in the powdery sand. Your shriveled tongue clunks against your mouth. You will yourself around one more bend. Up the canyon is a mound of earth and rocks. You realize you’ve seen several others.  Stumbling to it, you look down into a hole in the ground, human-made. It’s a qanat, filling with sand. There must have been water. Around one more bend you see another in the ancient line of qanat mounds, like beads on a string. It points toward the base of a cliff, and a patch of stalky, green grass. The rich, moist smell of water wafts into your desiccated nostrils. Your legs give way, and you collapse on your belly. High above, you think you hear the faint tinkling of bells, grazing goats, shepherds and their herds on the high, green pastures. Or is it just your ear tissue drying?


Peter Stark is an adventure and exploration writer. A long-time correspondent for Outside magazine, Stark’s articles and essays have also appeared in Smithsonian, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Men’s Journal, and many others.

Amy Ragsdale is a dance, travel and memoir writer, based out of Missoula, MT. She has contributed to the Raising Rippers column for Outside Magazine On-Line, writing weekly about raising adventurous children. Her articles have also appeared in Mamalode, High Desert Journal and British Airways On-Line.

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