We are water creatures, so much so that we share features with some aquatic animals – a lowered larynx, subcutaneous fat, and a slowing of our metabolism when in water. But our love for it isn’t saving rivers or seas, says Wade Graham in Perspective magazine. We have “dammed, diverted, depleted, polluted” rivers and their ecosystems the world over. Here in the US, the once-mighty Colorado is now the most engineered river on Earth and has reached the Pacific only a couple of times in 60 years. The ocean off California, assaulted by plastics, invasive species and upended by marine heatwaves, “has gone haywire”. All forms of life, from anchovies to whales, are suffering. And while global-warming experts worry mainly about air pollution, “water is where we need to focus”.
What can we do? Four rivers – one in New Zealand, one in Colombia and two in India – now have legal status and can be represented by communities in court. It’s a start. We need to re-establish that the public have “the senior right” to water, as asserted in the Magna Carta (in California just 400 farmers have a larger share of water than the 40 million other residents). Charge for it properly – once it had value. As Mark Twain said: “Whisky is for drinkin’, but water is for fightin’.” Today we don’t charge anything like its global value to us, measured at $125tn in 2011. Only if we treasure this resource can we hope to “keep water in the river until it reaches the ocean – and treat the ocean the same way”.