Posted by: chrismaser | January 17, 2012


Water is a physical necessity of life. Water is perhaps the most important commodity when it comes to the sustainability of a community and the world at large. A community’s supply of good-quality water is therefore precious beyond compare.

Santiam River in the Central Cascade Mountains of western Oregon, June, 2011.


The amount and quality of water available for human use is largely the result of climate and strategies for taking care of the biophysical integrity of water catchments. (Whereas most people use the term “watershed,” where “shed” means “to get ride of,” I use term “water catchment,” where “catchment” means “to capture” and store water, which is the biophysical function of such an area.) In North America and much of the Northern Hemisphere, sustaining the functional integrity of water catchments is particularly important in order to protect the annual snowpack from which the vast majority of all useable water comes. However, protecting the quality and quantity of society’s water supply is not a primary consideration of timber corporations, which operate where most of the annual snowpack is.

(top) A fifteen-foot (4.5-meter) snowpac in the high Cascade Mountains of Oregon in March 1958. (bottom) Snowpack in the Alps near Melchsee, Switzerland, on the 24th of May, 1985.

People seldom realize that drinkable water in the Northern Hemisphere and the high mountains of the Southern Hemisphere comes predominantly from forested water catchments and/or glaciers above tree line. Even much of the prehistoric ground water that is pumped to the surface for use in agriculture came from these water catchments.

Deep-winter snow at North Santiam Lake in the high Cascade Mountains of Oregon in March 1958.

To illustrate, the Tibetan Plateau is the birthplace of five great, glacial-fed, Asian rivers—the headwaters of the mighty Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Yangtze, and Mekong Rivers. In fact, Tibet is sometimes referred to as the Third Pole because it stores the most ice and water after the Arctic and Antarctica.1

1. The Indus River Indus River is one of the chief rivers of southern Asia. From its source in Tibet, the Indus originally flowed some 1,900 miles through Indian Kashmir and Pakistan to the Arabian Sea, which is an arm of the Indian Ocean—but today it no long reaches the sea. The river’s drainage basin encompasses 332,000 square miles, most of which is in Pakistan.2

2. The Ganges River, the most sacred river to India’s Hindus, flows 1,569 miles from the western Himalayas south and east through the Gangetic Plain of North India into Bangladesh, where it empties into the Bay of Bengal. The Ganges drainage basin has the densest human population in the world, with over 400 million people or about 1,000 people per square mile.3

3. From its origin in southwestern Tibet, the Brahmaputra River flows 1,800 miles across the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, where it breaks through the Himalayas in great gorges to flow through the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam before joining the Ganges in Bangladesh as it empties into the Bay of Bengal. Today, however, the Brahmaputra is under a grave threat from dams.4

4. The Irrawaddy River originates from the confluence of the N’mai and Mali Rivers, both of which have their source in the Himalayan glaciers of northern Myanmar (formerly known as “Burma”). The Irrawaddy River flows relatively straight from north to south through Myanmar before creating the Irrawaddy Delta as it empties into the Andaman Sea, which is part of the Indian Ocean. Its drainage basin is of about 98,487 square miles and covers a large part of Myanmar.5

Lang Tang (27,000 = 8,230 meters) in the Himalayas from an elevation 11,500 feet (3,505 meters) on Phulung Ghyang, Newakot District, Nepal, in May 1967.

5. Yangtze River flows for 3,988 mile from the glaciers in Qinghai on the Tibetan Plateau eastward through southwestern, central, and eastern China before emptying into the East China Sea at Shanghi. The Yangtze is not only the longest river in Asia and the third longest in the world but also drains one-fifth of China’s land area, and its river basin is home to one-third of the Chinese people.6

6. From the Tibetan Plateau, the Mekong River flows through China’s Yunnan province, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, where it formes the Mekong Delta as it empties into the South China Sea. It is the seventh longest river in Asia and the tenth longest in the world. The Mekong’s length is estimated to be 3,050 miles, and its drainage basin is 307,000 square miles in extent.7

Nevertheless, because the glaciers are melting faster due to warming global temperatures, both floods and water shortages will increase in the near future. If water sources dry up or become contaminated, there will be fateful consequences for over a billion people. “Because water in this region does not have a price tag yet, we take this most precious resource and its fount for granted. . . . Our short-sightedness [symptomatic thinking] blinds us to the relation between our activities and their longer-term consequences. The great push for economic development in the last 50 years has been possible due to rapid use of Earth’s fossil-fuel resources. However, the hidden costs have been accumulating and are borne mainly by those least able to protect themselves. Sooner or later, all of us will have to pay the price.”8

It is a different story in the Brazilian Amazon, and tropical rainforests in general, because an intact rainforest creates its own internal and external climate in which about half of all the rainfall originates from moisture given off by the forest itself. Yet, each year in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil an area that is 80 percent the size of the state of Oregon burns. The major cause of this deforestation in tropical rainforests, which leads to this kind of extensive burning, is their conversion to such agricultural endeavors as pastures for cattle, palm oil plantations, slash-and-burn agriculture, as well as illegal and clear-cut logging.


Top: a stream in Pumalin Park, southern Chile, and bottom: a stream in southern Malaysia.

Never in the history of humanity has so much of the world’s tropical forests been disturbed in such a foreign and catastrophic way on such a large scale as during the last 50 years. The significance of this statement lies in the fact that tropical rainforests—one of the world’s oldest ecosystems—occupy only 7 percent of the Earth’s surface but are home to more than 50 percent of all species. What does this mean in terms of the Amazonian tropical forest? When large areas are deforested, local and regional climatic patterns change. Once the forest is gone, drought is likely to occur, which increases the probability of fire and decreases the probability that the forest will ever return.

The environment in the deforested areas of the Amazon has been altered to such an extent that the ecological processes that once maintained the tropical forest are unraveling in irreversible change. Once the forest has been even partially cleared or logged, the environmental conditions change swiftly and dramatically. Removal of the trees not only alters the internal microclimate of the forest by exposing its heretofore protected, moist, shaded interior to the sun but also leaves behind large accumulations of woody material that are exposed to the sun’s drying heat. Daily temperatures soar in the deforested areas by 10 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit, which causes the woody fuels to dry and become extremely flammable.

Henceforth, it’s not a matter of if the area will burn, but instead of when it will burn. The ultimate result is a quick, dramatic change from a dense, closed-canopy forest virtually immune to fire to a weedy, flammable pasture or other opening in which fires are common and often occur repeatedly—to the exclusion of a new forest.9


A curious thing happens in the United States, however, when water flows outside the forest boundary: we forget where it came from. We fight over who has the “right” to the last drop, but pay little attention to the supply—the biophysical integrity of the forested water catchments and their drainage basins.

As a nation with once bountiful resources, the United States has rarely faced limits to those natural resources. Yet, present trends and experience indicate that every additional drop of water conserved and thus available enables more economic growth, which further raises the demand for more water and more economic growth. Effective management of a reliable, sustainable source of water will thus necessitate attention to both demand and supply.

The availability of water for agricultural use varies by location and over time. Availability of water also depends on such variations in components of the hydrologic cycle as precipitation, evaporation, transpiration, infiltration, and runoff. Because these components are interrelated, a change produced by technology in one component of the cycle inevitably affects all other components, which is analogous to playing a multidimensional game of chess, wherein each of the three primary levels encompasses myriad sublevels, all of which are interacting. The three levels are inseparably interactive spheres: the atmosphere (air), the litho-hydrosphere (the rock that constitutes the restless continents and the water that surrounds them), and the biosphere (all life sandwiched in the middle, which includes human society).

Today’s game is at once a measure of complexity, uncertainty, interdisciplinary acuity, social-environmental sustainability, and social justice for all generations. As such, it demands an ever-greater systemic point of view seen with progressive clarity, as one ascends to higher levels of consciousness, which comprises the balanced integration of the intellect with the intuition, the material with the spiritual.

In the short history of the United States, there have always been more lands and more resources to exploit and a philosophy that technology could supplement natural resources when needed. Today, however, stretching such water resources to accommodate the continuing economic growth of the United States while protecting existing patterns of water use will require levels of technical development that are increasingly damaging ecologically and no longer feasible economically. Moreover, few people realize that only a small part of the water used in the United States goes to towns and cities. The overwhelming share is used for irrigation.

For example, withdrawals of water for irrigation range from 80 percent of the total use in Utah to 90 percent in New Mexico. Further, the use of water for irrigation is inefficient at best, as shown by a U.S. Geological Survey, which found that the loss of water by seepage from canals was one third of the amount actually delivered to farms for irrigation.10 And this does not include the loss of water to the atmosphere through evaporation from the miles of transportation canals or from the myriad overhead sprinklers going full blast during the heat of the day.

According to Professor Luna B. Leopold, the persistence of the pro-economic expansion bias of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is increasingly inexcusable. This attitude is still held in spite of the obvious strain on both the quality and the quantity of the supply of water. According to Leopold, “It is deplorable that the government agency most responsible for managing water in water-short regions continues to be so insensitive to the hydrological continuum and the equity among claimants.”

The hydrological continuum, as used by Leopold, is different from the hydrological cycle. The hydrological cycle continues for better or for worse, but the idea of a hydrological continuum implies the maintenance of a quasi-equilibrium operational balance among the processes within the hydrological cycle, which involve the air, water, soil, biosphere, and people. In other words, if withdrawals of water are balanced with Nature’s capacity to replenish what is used, the use of water can be measured in such a way that the available, long-term supply is protected.11

There are two options in managing the use of water: The wise alternative is to begin now to protect the availability of the long-term supply by disciplining ourselves to use only what is necessary in the most prudent manner. The other is to continue taking water for granted, use all we want with no discipline whatsoever, and then wonder what to do when faced with a self-inflicted shortage, as is beginning to happen worldwide, due in part to the uncontrolled pumping of groundwater for the irrigation of agricultural crops.

In California’s Central Valley, for example, the irrigation of farm crops has pulled groundwater from aquifers at unsustainable rates. The Central Valley, which covers 20,000 square miles, is one of the most productive areas of the world. As such, some of the crop yields are sold in countries other than the United States. This is true also in areas of the world that have less available water and are less productive.

So what, you might say, people need the food, and farmers want to make money. The point is threefold:

1. A number of countries (as already pointed out) get much of their water from outside of their borders, which includes the United States, Israel, Kuwait, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands.

2. It takes water in the form of irrigation to grow the crops, which are then exported to other countries.

3. Water is not always wet. What do I mean by that? It takes water to raise the crops that are exported, which means the crops being shipped outside of a country’s borders represent the export of the water used to grow them. In other words, the water committed to the production of the crops cannot be used for anything else within the country, but may, in fact, be draining the country’s available water, as is the case in California’s Central Valley and other countries, especially more arid ones. In short, the trade in agricultural products, when coupled with global warming, increases the probability of irreversible, regional water shortages over time.12

4. Groundwater, a life-sustaining resource that supplies billions of people with water, is not only central to agricultural irrigation but also the productive integrity of many ecosystems. Although assessments of global water resources have been focused primarily on surface water, the non-sustainable depletion of groundwater has recently been documented worldwide. Succinctly stated, the “groundwater footprint” (the area required to sustain groundwater use and groundwater-dependent ecosystem services) clearly shows that humans are overexploiting many large aquifers that are critical to agriculture, especially in North America and Asia. It is estimated that the current drawdown of the global groundwater currently exceeds by 3.5 times the actual area of the aquifers required to maintain the supply’s sustainability, which means that about 1.7 billion people live in areas where groundwater resources and/or groundwater-dependent ecosystems are under threat. That said, 80% of the global aquifers are used in a sustainable manner, which means that the net, global, groundwater footprint is driven by a few heavily overexploited aquifers—the United States among them.13


Add today’s progressive global warming to the mix and it will only intensify tomorrow’s uncertainties—such as the increasingly quick loss of groundwater beneath the Central Valley of California, southern Argentine, the Middle East and Russia, northeastern China, Northern India, and the Canning Basin of western Australia because it is being pumped out of the world’s major aquifers for agriculture faster than it can be replenished. In fact, in Northern India the annual loss of groundwater is enough water to fill 7 million Olympic swimming pools. And in the Central Valley of California, the land has been sinking for decades as landowners drill more and more wells and extract more and more water. In addition, drought is taking a toll on groundwater recharge in such areas as the plains of Patagonia in Argentina and across the southeastern United States.14

By using all the water we want in a totally undisciplined manner, we are insensitive to both the care we take of the water catchments in each bioregion and the speed with which we mine the supply of stored, available water. Nevertheless, as Professor D.J. Chasan observed, “One might suppose that people would automatically conserve the only naturally occurring water in a virtual desert, but one would be wrong. Land and farm machinery have capital value. Water in the ground, like salmon in the sea, does not. Just as salmon are worth money only if you catch them, water is worth money only if you pump it.”15 We are therefore pumping groundwater as if there were no tomorrow. And if that were not enough, we are damming, diverting, and canalizing the streams and rivers worldwide to “tame” and “harness” their water for short-term use based on unwise economics, rather than nurturing the environment to ensure the availability of an adequate, long-term supply of water to fulfill the requirements of all generations.

Owyhee Dam on the Owyhee River in southeastern Oregon near the town of Adrian. Completed in 1932 during the Great Depression, the dam generates electricity and provides water for several irrigation districts in Oregon and neighboring Idaho.

Is water to become the next—and perhaps ultimate—economic/political club with which we bludgeon each other? Will water become the source of future civil and international wars? These questions are appropriate here because, as we witness the degradation of water catchments, we are also limiting the available supplies of potable water. In fact, Dr. Maria Neira, director of public health and environment for the World Health Organization, says a child already dies every 21 seconds from a lack of access to clean water.16

Our human challenge is that we tend to take things for granted until we lose them, and then it’s often too late to rectify the problem. To put it plainly, there are no problems in the world outside our own thinking and desire for quick gains. All the problems plaguing the globe today are the products of our self-centered, symptomatic thinking, just as they have been throughout history. In fact, every crisis in the world today—whether social or environmental—is a historical archive of human choices, decisions, and their subsequent actions, including those of yesterday, which prompted Winston Churchill to say:

“When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure. There is nothing new in the story. . . . It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind.

“Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong—these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.”17

The only solution is simultaneously twofold: elevate the level of our thinking beyond that which caused the problem in the first place and begin now to consciously, purposefully protect the biophysical integrity of water catchments on a landscape scale by nurturing the cleanliness of the air, which affects the ecological integrity of the soil, which affects the purity of the water, lest everything else become non-sustainable. After all, like the aforementioned game of chess, the inseparably interactive spheres: the atmosphere (air), the litho-hydrosphere (the rock that constitutes the restless continents and the water that surrounds them), and the biosphere (all life sandwiched in the middle, which includes human society) are the essence of our home planet. And like migratory birds and anadromous fish, environmental crises, such as the pollution of air, soil, and water, know no political boundaries.

With the growing realization of the ecological interdependency among all living forms and their physical environment, it can hardly be doubted that even “renewable” resources are increasingly showing signs of suffering from the effects of society’s unrelenting, materialistic demands for more—ever more. These demands have degraded the renewability of resources in both quality and quantity. Water can be thus characterized, because it is increasingly degraded by air pollution, soil erosion, increases in temperature, and pollution with chemical wastes, salts from irrigation, and overloads of organic materials. Is it any wonder, therefore, that the hydrological cycle, as well as the hydrological continuum, is under stress?

The rub lies in thoughtlessness with which we humans use available technology. Most farmers, for example, are interested only in the short-term production of their own fields. Similarly, the county agents who advise them are often more likely to be concerned with the farmers’ fields than with the biophysical integrity of the river’s drainage basin as a whole. Further, engineers tend to see the hydrological system merely as a series of symptomatic problems to be solved.

As with any problem, there are solutions, but we tend to look for them not only outside of ourselves—our thinking and subsequent actions—but also just when and where the symptoms are obvious, and then only to alleviate the symptoms. The time for systemic action is now—to curb global warming and to commence repairing the damage we have inflicted on the biophysical systems that support us. In fact, now is the only time we have—or ever will have—to elevate our thinking to a higher level of consciousness with respect to the consequences of our decision and actions. Put plainly, it’s time to act as responsible trustees of our home planet as a biological living trust for the sake of the beneficiaries—all the world’s children, present and future.

Sunrise over Spirit Lake and Mount St. Helens in the Washington Cascades Mountains, January 1,1961.

Related Posts:

• Principle 1: Everything is a relationship

• Water–A Captive Of Gravity

• Levees—An Ignored Lesson In “Conduit 101”

• Resource overexploitation (Oceanic Extinctions—Part 2)

• Our Human Impact on the World’s Oceans (Oceanic Extinctions—Part 3)

• The Self-Inflicted Cost Of Economic Myopia

• Children Deserve A Voice In Their Future—Instructions for Adults


1. H.H. 17th Gyalwang Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje. Walking the Path of Environmental Buddhism through Compassion and Emptiness. Conservation Biology, 25 (2011):1094-1097.

2. (1) The Indus River. (accessed January 6, 2012) and (2) H.H. 17th Gyalwang Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje. Walking the Path of Environmental Buddhism through Compassion and Emptiness. op. cit.

3. Ganges. (accessed January 6, 2012).

4. Brahmaputra River. (1) (2) (accessed January 6, 2012), and (3) H. H.17th Gyalwang Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje. Walking the Path of Environmental Buddhism through Compassion and Emptiness. op. cit.

5. Irrawaddy River. (1) and (2) N’Mai River. (3) Andaman Sea. (accessed January 6, 2012).

6. Yangtze River. (accessed January 6, 2012).

7. Mekong. (1) and (2) (accessed January 6, 2012).

8. H.H. 17th Gyalwang Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje. Walking the Path of Environmental Buddhism through Compassion and Emptiness. op. cit.

9. The foregoing discussion to tropical forests is based in part on: Carol Savonen. Ashes in the Amazon. Journal of Forestry, 88 (1990):20-25.

10. (1) T. Maddock III, H. Banks, R. DeHan, and others. 1984. Protecting the Nation’s Groundwater From Contamination. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, OTA-0-233. 244 pp.; (2) D. Hand. Breadbasket Ecology. Yoga Journal, May/June (1990):23-24; and (3) S. McCartney. Watering the West, Part 3. Growing Demand, Decreasing Supply Send Costs Soaring. The Oregonian, Portland, OR. 30 September 1986.

11.The preceding two paragraphs are based on: Luna B. Leopold. Ethos, Equity, and The Water Resource. Environment, 2 (1990):16-42.

12. The foregoing five paragraphs are based on: (1) Sid Perkins. California Hit by Irrigation Drain. Science News, 177 (number 2, 2010):14 and (2) Susan Milius. Food Exports Can Drain Arid Zones. Science News, 181 (number 6, 2012):16.

13. Tom Gleeson, Yoshidide Wada, Marc F.P. Bierkens, and Ludovicus P. H. van Beek. Water Balance of Global Aquifers Revealed by Groundwater Footprint. Nature, 488 (2012):197–200.

14. (1) Richard A. Kerr. Northern India’s Groundwater Is Going, Going, Going … Science, 325 (2009):325–798; (2) V. M. Tiwari, J. Wahr, and S. Swenson. Dwindling Groundwater Resources In Northern India, From Satellite Gravity Observations. Geophysical Research Letters, 36, L18401, 5 PP., 2009
doi:10.1029/2009GL039401 and (3) Devin Powell. Satellites Show Groundwater Dropping Globally. Science News, 181 (number 1, 2011):5-6.

15. D.J. Chasan. 1977. Up For Grabs, Inquiries Into Who Wants What. Madrona Publishers, Inc., Seattle, WA. 133 pp.

16. Carrie Halperin. How Climate Change May Make Killer Diseases Worse. (accessed May 5, 2011)

17. Winston Churchill. In: T.A. Warren. Leaders Need Followers. The Rotarian, 1945 (October):10-12.

Text and Photos © by Chris Maser 2012. All rights reserved.

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If you want to contact me, you can visit my website. If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.

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