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Slow Views

Our watery wasteland

Monday 13 September 2021

Too little water is bad for both the planet and people. Too much water is bad for them, too. We’ve created a crisis in which both extremes are happening at once


“Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.” Lines on the tombstone of John Keats, the poet who died in 1821; his body lies in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. These words have been in my head, for as guest judge for the Keats-Shelley Poetry Prize of 2021, I have been spending a lot of time reading poems on the theme “Writ in Water”.

Those few words, enigmatic to say the least, are conventionally interpreted as the opposite of set in stone: transient, fleeting, ever-changing. But water is still the most important thing about us: for without water no life is possible.

Your body is about 60 per cent water; your brain is 73 per cent water; even your bones are 31 per cent water. Everything you write in hard copy is writ in water: it takes 10 litres of water to make a single sheet of A4 paper (so all the more reason to subscribe to Tortoise rather than a conventional newspaper).

Lack of water is anguish and death. As T.S. Elliot wrote in The Waste Land:

If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think

Yet just a few lines earlier there had been a drowning:

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls…

Water is life; it is also death. A year after Keats’s death, Percy Shelley, fellow Romantic poet, was drowned in a boating accident. In his pocket was a copy of Keats’s poetry; the covers were doubled back, as if he had been planning to return to the poems as soon as he had a moment to spare.

There is water in all known living organisms; it is vital to all forms of life and yet it provides no calories, no organic nutrients. It covers more than 70 per cent of the earth’s surface; about three per cent of this is fresh water, and, of this, about two per cent is locked up – for now – in glaciers and polar ice.

There is also water beyond the earth. Water has been found in the atmosphere of the sun and of most of the planets in the solar system. Ten years ago a cloud was found around a quasar ten billion light-years away: it contains 140 trillion times the amount of water found in all the oceans of the earth.

Water is part of our most elevated actions and of our most basic. Ritual washing with water is part of Christianity, Islam, Taoism, Hinduism, Judaism and Rastafarianism. When you step inside a Catholic church, you find a stoup of holy water: dip your fingers in and make the sign of the cross on your body before you go any further. Water of the unblessed kind comes in useful when we retreat from the world to spend a penny and then flush a couple of gallons.

We are placental mammals, which means that we begin our lives as wholly aquatic creatures, swimming in the great sea of our mothers’ wombs. We know that without water we will die. This elemental fear led to the 21st-century craze of never being parted from a (polluting) plastic bottle of mineral water and the fanciful notion that without constant throughput we will die or – worse – start to look old. A drama school teacher told me that his pupils “spend the whole time drinking water and going to the lavatory”.

But it’s possible to overdo it. You can kill yourself by denying yourself water; you can kill yourself by drinking too much. Excessive water intake dilutes the amount of sodium in the blood and causes fluids to move inside the cells, making them swell. This can happen to the cells in the brain, and it can be fatal.

For centuries, we have used rivers as rubbish tips and sewers. I can still remember the stench of the River Thames at Barnes where, as a schoolboy, I established a reputation as the worst cox in the history of the Tideway. Rivers are cleaner now, and less obviously polluted, but they still carry run-off from agricultural land. We do not treat our water with kindness and gratitude.

Benets Level drainage tower windmill on the Norfolk Broads

And yet we make love to the water when we can. I live in Norfolk on the edge of the Broads, a watery landscape of more than 100 square miles, with 120 miles of navigable waterways, seven rivers and 63 broads. Each year, more than seven million visitors come here in search of the big skies, the big spaces, and the peace-giving vistas of water.

I remember being taught about the Water Cycle in primary school; I expect everybody does. Water from the oceans evaporates and rises up towards the sky. The same thing happens with rivers and lakes. Trees fetch water from deep in the earth, and they release it by transpiration: that is to say, passing vapour out from the lower surface of their leaves as part of photosynthesis, the process by which plants make their own food. 

The water rises up into the sky, where it forms clouds. And these clouds eventually fall in the form of rain and snow, eternally replenishing the Earth’s store of water: an endless motion that makes life on this planet possible. As the rains fall, so drops are caught on the leaves, and these in turn evaporate and go back into the atmosphere and make new clouds: so trees play an essential part in the water cycle – in the process of keeping everything alive.

Tropical rainstorm in Ranchi, India

I have been in rainforest many times, and savoured events that sound like apocalyptic storms, knowing they are the exact opposite: life-giving rainfall that not only nourishes the forest but is in large part created by the forest. I have also been in deserts and savoured the miraculous way that life can still operate even when years can pass without a single drop of rain. I have seen frogs that wrap themselves in a water tight membrane like cling film and lie in a state of suspended animation, waiting for a once-in-a-decade storm to strike. And I have seen them awake in this briefly watery world, in haste to live and mate and make more of their kind before life dries up again.

Life began in water. The story of the expansion of life’s possibilities onto dry land was taught to me in heroic terms: the conquest of the land. It is essentially a way of living the same old watery life in places that are less wet: development of self-supporting plants, hard-shelled eggs, water-tight skins, and devices that allow us to glean oxygen from the air. Our lungs developed from the swim-bladders of our fishy ancestors: they allow us to swim through life on dry land, breathing, propagating and staying moist.

Too little water is bad, too much water is bad: so long as we have just the right amount, we are all right, and can hold to the belief that all is for the best. Floods are bad; droughts are bad. Both kill people. Both can cause damage that is frightening enough simply in terms of money.

So let us turn, then, to climate change. It remains a hard concept to grasp. What difference, after all, does a degree or two make here or there? What could possibly be wrong with nicer weather, we say somewhat smugly from our chilly northern island. But the fact is that climate change destroys the beauty of the water cycle. Climate change is essentially a crisis of water.

Australian farmer Richard Gillham drives his truck across a drought-affected paddock

These changes are creating longer periods of drought. The warmer it is, the greater the rate of evaporation: the earth is therefore holding less fresh water in liquid form. Warm air holds more moisture than cool. There is also less rainfall than there used to be in many areas.

This is partly the result of changing weather patterns that come with the changes in the climate, and it is also an aspect of deforestation. Trees lift water from deep in the ground, water that would otherwise be inaccessible; they also, by holding onto rainwater which then evaporates, helped to create rain. In other words we have gone to some trouble to create better conditions for drought.

The changes in the climate also create the exact opposite problem: that of too much water. That is largely because there are more extreme weather events. The reason is obvious enough: heat is a form of energy, and when you put more energy into something, it becomes more energetic. We have put a great deal more energy into the climate of the planet, and it is responding by becoming more volatile. Tropical storms, cyclones, hurricanes, typhoons – different names for the same thing – are more frequent and more devastating.

They are not only more violent, and with heavier rain, they also operate in conditions that might have been deliberately designed to create flooding. We have canalised rivers, we have buried them (London has many subterranean rivers, including the Fleet, the Tyburn and Stamford Brook), we have deforested the headwaters and compacted the earth with grazing, we have cut rivers off from their floodplains, we have paved gardens, we have built roads where rivers once flowed. Heavy rains now cause far more frequent flooding downstream: thus we make an enemy of the substance that gives us life.

Tewkesbury Abbey, at the confluence of the Rivers Severn and Avon in England, is surrounded by flood waters in February 2020

Flooding is now clearly a global problem as well as a local one. The year 2020 brought the UK the wettest February on record. The storms called Clara and Dennis flooded 3,300 properties in England, while in Wales 1,000 more were flooded in Rhondda alone. When heavy rainfall comes, it increasingly comes in quantities greater than the vegetation and the soil can absorb. So it goes downstream, and does so faster than the humanmade infrastructure can cope with.

The changing climate is also causing the sea to rise, as ice melts from glaciers and polar ice-caps. This affects all low-lying coastal areas, and makes them increasingly vulnerable to tidal surges.

Hazlewood nature reserve in Suffolk was a nice freshwater marsh, protected from the sea. In 2013, the Environment Agency reckoned the wall would resist the sea for another 20 years. A few months later a tidal surge overwhelmed it and drowned the marsh.

It is now – nature being what it is – a rather good saltwater habitat with wintering spoonbills. But the point is that it was changed from top to bottom in an instant of time. That is what the sea can do, and is doing. Coastal towns spring up because of their proximity to water: now, every year, they are getting more than they bargained for.

The Waste Land was published in 1922, at the high tide of modernism. The terrible lack of water, and the terrible effects of too much water, can be and have been interpreted as symbols of many terrible things in human existence. “I think we are in rats’ alley where the dead men lost their bones.”

Now, with the centenary of The Waste Land in our sights, we have done better than Eliot. Never mind symbolism: we have created a real waste land, one marked simultaneously by shortage and excess of water. We have responded to this great crisis in the stuff that makes life possible by carrying on just as we have been doing for the past century, while politicians either deny that it’s happening or promise action that never comes.

After the event
He wept. He promised “a new start.”
I made no comment. What should I resent?

Simon Barnes is a journalist and author, previously working at the Times both as its chief sports writer and as a wildlife columnist.

Photograph by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images


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