“The Climate Crisis” is an umbrella term that covers every way in which global warming, driven by the way industrialized societies have been dumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, is making life worse and more dangerous. The higher global temperature is dangerous all by itself, but it’s exacerbating a whole host of other problems all over the planet. Of those, the “Water Crisis” is one of the most widely-discussed. This makes sense, right? Take away our water, and humans die pretty quickly. If we run out of it, that’s pretty much the end of the line.
Of course, were not running out of water. Not really. We’re running out of clean water – water that’s safe for humans to drink. Historically, that has meant water that’s not filled with microorganisms, which can give us nasty ailments like dysentery, leading to fun stuff like death by diarrhea. We’ve developed all sorts of ways to safely hydrate ourselves, but generally, water from underground has been the safest. There are vast reservoirs of the stuff, called aquifers, that just sit in porous ground, so that all we have to do is dig a deep enough hole in the right place, and it’ll fill up with clean water. We can also boil it, which will kill any disease-causing microorganisms, make filters that form a physical barrier against those pathogens, or use small amounts of chemicals like chlorine or iodine to poison them.
The problem is, we don’t just use clean water for drinking, cooking, and washing. We also use it to irrigate our crops, and to manufacture various goods. Modern society, as a rule uses a truly staggering amount of water, using thousands of liters to make a single car, for one example. Our default has been to act as though our sources of clean water were infinite, even though we’ve known for a long time that they’re not. The result is that the world’s groundwater is running out, and there doesn’t really seem to be much of a plan to replace them. Hell, thanks to capitalism, we instead have corporations staking their claim to various water sources so they can charge people for access, and relying on capitalist governments to use violence to enforce their ownership.
Like most of the crises of the modern day, the water crisis is of our own making, both through how we use and waste clean water, and through how we allow it to be controlled for profit. It’s tempting to say that solving the problem is as easy. All we have to do is end wasteful over-use, end water privatization, and treat it as a public good, and we’re well on our way, right? Well, I obviously think we should do those things, but it’s not enough. It seems more likely that with all the manufacturing needed to end fossil fuel use, and the water needed to keep crops alive on a hotter planet, the water crisis will continue to exist for decades to come. That means that to solve it, we also need to be actively cleaning water, both for our own use, and to avoid contamination of the aquifers that will begin replenishing themselves, if we ever stop draining them.
Unfortunately, the microbial contamination that I mentioned above isn’t the only problem. When you use water to manufacture a car, it’s contaminated by a whole host of chemicals, some of which can seep into aquifers along with the water. Worse, chemical corporations like Dupont have a habit of directly dumping their waste products into rivers. Multiply that by the millions of factories around the world, and add in things like the pharmaceuticals we flush down the toilet, and it’s clear that if we want future generations to have water that won’t mess with their bodies in unpredictable ways, we need to clean things up. The most reliable way to do that is to clean all the water.
Which sounds like a bit of a tall order. Even if we ignore the oceans, and just focus on the fresh water, there’s no way cleaning it all is practical, right? The amount of power needed to run water filtration plants capable of removing all those chemicals would be huge, especially if we’re using them not just for the water that we use, but for water sources in general.
Well, yes, probably.
But that’s only if we’re focused on using machinery and energy to clean it. There are other ways. Better ways.
I’ve talked about this before, and I’ll probably talk about it again, but we could make this world a much better place to live if we stopped working against nature, and started working with it. As non-indigenous cultures spread out across the world, reshaping much of it for our convenience, wetlands have mostly been viewed as problems to be solved. It makes a degree of sense. The water and soft soil make them bad places to build, they tend not to smell particularly good, and they’re great for breeding all sorts of biting flies, some of which carry diseases. Rather than working around them, we’ve defaulted towards draining them and filling them in, to the point where politicians who want to convince people that they’re honest, upstanding leaders will often talk about “draining the swamp”, as a metaphor for getting rid of corruption.
Well, it turns out that we need swamps, and marshes, and bogs. Completely aside from the important roles they play in maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem health, and in protecting coasts from storm surges, wetlands are also good for cleaning chemicals out of water. This is something I’ve talked about before, and I’m sure I’ll talk about it again in the future. Water in wetlands doesn’t just sit there, it’s taken in and put out again by plants, which can break down some chemicals, and absorb others. The stuff that’s absorbed becomes part of the plant, and when that plant dies, it becomes part of the soil. In the case of things like heavy metals, it’s still there, in the sediment, but what’s important for us is that it’s no longer floating around. When the water leaves the wetland, it’s cleaner than it was before. That process doesn’t remove those microbes that can make us sick, but those are so easy to deal with that in an emergency, all you need is the means to boil water, and the willingness to drink hot water when you’re desperate. It’s not pleasant, and it can taste funny, but honestly the microbes are the least concerning part of water contamination – we’re good at getting rid of those!
So we need more wetlands, and we need to view them as a part of our water system, same as the pumps, pipes, and purification systems that we build. We need to learn how to let go of the pretense that we are somehow apart from nature, and start incorporating it into our society. For that, we can look to societies of the past, and see how wetlands have been integrated into the water systems of, for example, the ancient Mayan civilization:
The Maya built and maintained reservoirs that were in use for more than 1,000 years, wrote University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign anthropology professor Lisa Lucero in a perspective in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. These reservoirs provided potable water for thousands to tens of thousands of people in cities during the annual, five-month dry season and in periods of prolonged drought.
“Most major southern lowland Maya cities emerged in areas that lacked surface water but had great agricultural soils,” Lucero said. “They compensated by constructing reservoir systems that started small and grew in size and complexity.”
Over time, the Maya built canals, dams, sluices and berms to direct, store and transport water. They used quartz sand for water filtration, sometimes importing it from great distances to massive cities like Tikal in what is now northern Guatemala. A sediment core from one of Tikal’s reservoirs also found that zeolite sand had been used in its construction. Previous studies have shown that this volcanic sand can filter impurities and disease-causing microbes from water. The zeolite also would have been imported from sources about 18 miles (30 kilometers) away.
“Tikal’s reservoirs could hold more than 900,000 cubic meters of water,” Lucero wrote. Estimates suggest that up to 80,000 people lived in the city and its environs in the Late Classic period, roughly 600 to 800 C.E. The reservoirs kept people and crops hydrated during the dry season, Lucero said.
Maya royalty got much of their status from their ability to provide water to the populace.
“Clean water and political power were inextricably linked – as demonstrated by the fact that the largest reservoirs were built near palaces and temples,” Lucero wrote. The kings also performed ceremonies to gain the favor of ancestors and the rain god, Chahk.
A key challenge was to keep standing water in reservoirs from becoming stagnant and undrinkable, and for that the Maya likely relied on aquatic plants, many of which still populate Central American wetlands today, Lucero said. These include cattails, sedges, reeds and others. Some of these plants have been identified in sediment cores from Maya reservoirs.
These plants filtered the water, reducing murkiness and absorbing nitrogen and phosphorous, Lucero said.
This wasn’t just an accident either. They dredged their reservoirs regularly to maintain their function, and used the sediment to fertilize their fields. When it comes to stuff like heavy metals and other industrial contamination, that’s one area where we should probably find a different solution. As I said above, some of these pollutants just hang out in the sediment, and can become dangerous again if they’re stirred up. That means that dredging is a more complicated process, and we have to find different ways to dispose of the muck, but the overall setup is one that would serve us well, I think.
The most iconic aquatic plant associated with the ancient Maya is the water lily, Nymphaea ampla, which thrives only in clean water, Lucero said. Its pollen has been found in sediment cores from several Maya reservoirs. Water lilies symbolized “Classic Maya kingship,” Lucero wrote.
“The kings even donned headdresses adorned with the flowers and are depicted with water lilies in Maya art,” Lucero said.
“Water lilies do not tolerate acidic conditions or too much calcium such as limestone or high concentrations of certain minerals like iron and manganese,” she wrote.
To keep water lilies alive, water managers would have had to line the reservoirs with clay, Lucero said. A layer of sediment would be needed for plants’ roots. In turn, the water lilies and trees and shrubs planted near the reservoirs shaded the water, cooling it and inhibiting the growth of algae.
“The Maya generally did not build residences near reservoir edges, so contamination seeping through the karstic terrain would not have been an issue,” Lucero wrote.
The evidence gathered from several southern lowland cities indicates that, as constructed wetlands, Maya reservoirs supplied potable water to people for more than 1,000 years, failing only when the severest droughts took hold in the region between 800 and 900 C.E., Lucero said. She notes that current climate trends will require many of the same approaches the Maya employed, including the use of aquatic plants to improve and maintain water quality naturally.
“Constructed wetlands provide many advantages over conventional wastewater treatment systems,” she wrote. “They provide an economical, low technology, less expensive and high energy-saving treatment technology.”
In addition to providing clean water, constructed wetlands also support aquatic animals and can be a source of nutrients to replenish agricultural soils, she wrote.
“The next step moving forward is to combine our respective expertise and implement the lessons embodied in ancient Maya reservoirs in conjunction with what is currently known about constructed wetlands,” she wrote.
I think it’s fair to say that the droughts that are coming will be worse than those of a thousand years ago, simply because the temperature is higher, and is still rising. Even so, the more we support the ecosystems around us, the more resilient they will be, and the better off we will be. Further, as I’ve posted in the past, wetlands are great for pulling CO2 out of the air, and whether we dredge them, or leave them be as part of an ever-changing landscape, their mere existence will serve us in many ways.
It’s easy to feel as though the pollution of the world happened easily, and cleaning it up will be far more difficult. There’s definitely truth in that, given how widely pollution has spread, but I think it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t exactly easy to mess the world up as much as we have. It’s taken a huge amount of labor, extracting fuels, processing resources, manufacturing goods, and waging bloody wars to keep the capitalist mode of production running. It still takes all of that to maintain it, and while cleaning up won’t generate energy the way burning coal does, there’s ample evidence that it can create other benefits for society, that we’ll be glad to have. I posted a while back about how researchers have developed a way to break down PFAS – “forever chemicals” – in a lab, using chemicals like lye, DMSO, and sodium hydroxide, but guess what?
Conducted in partnership with Australia’s national science agency CSIRO and the University of Western Australia, the research found that PFAS chemicals (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) can be removed from contaminated water via Australian native rushes – Phragmites australis, Baumea articulata, and Juncus kraussii.
Phragmites australis, otherwise known as the common reed, removed legacy PFAS contaminants by 42-53 per cent from contaminated surface water (level: 10 µg/L).
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to PFAS may lead to a range of health issues including a decline in fertility, developmental delays in children, increased risk of some cancers, a reduced immune system, higher cholesterol, and risk of obesity.
UniSA and CSIRO researcher Dr John Awad says that this research could alleviate many of these environmental and health risks by providing a clean, green, and cost-effective method to remove PFAS from the environment.
“PFASs are often referred to as ‘forever chemicals’ because they don’t break down, instead accumulating in the environment and in our bodies where they can cause adverse health effects,” Dr Awad says.
“In Australia, PFAS concerns often relate to the use of firefighting foam – especially legacy firefighting foam – which accumulates in the surface water of our waterways.
“Our research tested the effectiveness of Australian rushes to remove PFAS chemicals from stormwater, finding that Phragmites australis was the most effective at absorbing chemicals through its roots and shoots.”
The study used constructed floating wetlands as a mechanism for plants to grow hydroponically. Dr Awad says floating wetlands present a novel and flexible way for natural remediation systems.
“Constructed floating wetlands can be readily installed into existing urban environments, such as holding reservoirs and retention basins, making them highly manoeuvrable and adaptable to local waterways,” Dr Awad says.
“Plus, as this innovative water treatment system does not require pumping or the ongoing addition of chemicals, it is a cost-effective remediation system for PFAS removal.
“Add native plants to the mix and we have delivered a truly clean, green and environmentally-friendly method for removing toxic PFAS chemicals from contaminated water.”
You’ll note the same language in this article from Australia, as we saw in the earlier one about how the Maya managed their reservoirs – not just as places to hold water, but also as places to clean it, and to keep it clean. Do it right, and you can even help deal with the microbe and mosquito problems, without relying on machinery and chemicals.
I want to close by saying that while constructed wetlands are important, and something we should do more of, natural wetlands are also important. Firstly, we need them for biodiversity and ecosystem health, because humanity needs those for our long-term survival and wellbeing. Secondly, and more to the point of this article, even wetlands that are far away from major waterways and human population centers have an impact on water quality:
Geographically isolated wetlands play an outsized role in providing clean water and other environmental benefits even though they may lack the regulatory protections of other wetlands, according to an article by Indiana University researchers and colleagues.
Given those benefits, the authors argue, decision-makers should assume that isolated wetlands are critical for protecting aquatic systems, and the burden of proof should be on those who argue on a case-by-case basis that individual wetlands need not be protected.
In addition to protecting all wetlands by default, this is one way in which, as I’ve said before, we need to work with beavers. When it comes to the creation and maintenance of wetlands, beavers (and their instinctive hatred of the sound of trickling water) are ecosystem engineers without parallel, and their natural range is the entire northern hemisphere. Further, in addition to everything already mentioned about wetlands, beaver dams themselves also help clean water, by accumulating sediment, which traps pollutants in the soil. It’s not far off from how I was describing the way plants trap heavy metals. We should not introduce them to ecosystems that have never had them before, but in North America and Eurasia, we should be bolstering beaverkind however we can.
There’s a phrase that I dislike, but that seems to be very popular – work smarter, not harder. When it comes to repairing the damage that’s been done to the world over the last couple centuries, there are many ways in which we simply will have to work harder, or work just as hard on different things. That said, a big part of why I believe repairing that damage is possible, is that there are a myriad of ways in which we can “work smarter”, and achieve great results with comparatively little effort, by working with ecosystems. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve only been talking about fresh water here. The oceans are also polluted. Salt marshes help with that, as does seaweed, but the other part of it is that a lot of pollution in the oceans comes from what we do on land and in freshwater systems. Addressing that end of things will help the oceans clean themselves. Just as efforts to clean our water sources won’t be enough if we don’t stop adding new pollution to them, efforts to clean the oceans won’t be enough if we don’t deal with the water flowing into them. It’s all connected, so despite the size of the oceans, making real progress on land is essential.
The obstacles to a better world are enormous, but we can overcome them, if we can learn how to do things differently.
Hey, sorry about the long delay between posts. I meant to have this up mid-week, but got distracted by other things. I’m planning to post weekly, at minimum, but if you want me to dedicate more time to this stuff, giving me money on Patreon is a great way to do that. I’m trying to finish Tadpole and the Inner Tower this year, but I keep running into delays, largely rooted in my own lack of skill as a fiction writer, hence my desire to spend more time on that end of things.