In March 2014, the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 led to the largest and most expensive multinational sea search in history. For a month after the plane was lost to radar, investigation experts and sophisticated naval teams from the world’s most developed countries spread out over the Indian Ocean in a desperate search for the airliner. The media covered it 24/7. Millions watched, hoping for some sign of the doomed airliner and the lost passengers.
At an early stage in the search, an excited news anchor broke into CNN coverage reporting that satellites had picked up a large “debris area” at a distant location in the South Indian Ocean. For hours, experts speculated about and analyzed this news, hoping for confirmation that the airliner had been found. Then came word from the searchers: no airplane. Rather, the large debris field was floating trash, as one commentator said, “just garbage.”
For a short time, the experts switched from the plane crash to an environmental story. The world’s oceans are full of garbage. Some of it is visible, like cargo that falls from ships carrying goods around the world, and some is less visible, like tons of plastics and chemical sludge washed – or purposely dumped – into sea currents from the world’s watersheds. This debris clusters into oceanic gyres, creating large floating trash heaps of human-produced waste in some of the most remote locations of the planet.
CNN showed video footage and photographs taken by search crews. There it was: a massive tangle of human garbage, including thousands of the now ubiquitous plastic water bottles. Hours of news coverage that promised word of a downed airliner wound up being wall-to-wall analysis of stuff that washed down the planet’s storm drains and formed itself into islands in the South Indian Ocean.
The news about the airliner was worrisome and sad, but somehow the news about the ocean struck me as equally depressing – especially since the commentators did not seem particularly fazed by the fact that these heaps of trash – “just garbage” – are largely toxic. As the trash degrades, it contaminates the food chain that begins in our oceans and sickens fish, birds, animals, and eventually us with chemicals no living being was ever meant to ingest. The problem of ocean trash is so bad that garbage clogs sea-lanes and ports in many parts of the world. Indeed, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers picks up approximately ninety tons of trash every month from the San Francisco Bay alone.
But it is hard to see the ocean. Even though I was well aware of the problems of toxic trash at sea, the CNN reports startled me. As the old adage goes, “Out of sight, out of mind.” Or, as naturalist Aldo Leopold once wrote, “We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, and understand, or otherwise have faith in.” The South Indian Ocean may be out of my sight, but other problems are not.
In February 2015, I was driving in California from Santa Barbara to Solvang on a scenic road that passes Lake Cachuma, a huge constructed lake that serves as the major source of drinking water for Santa Barbara County. Although I used to drive that road frequently, it had been about four years since my last visit. When I came around a bend, expecting to see the bright blue water against the rocky hills, I was shocked. No water. At least not much. Instead, large swaths of devastated shoreline were visible. The ground was dry and cracked. Docks had collapsed at what used to be the water’s edge. Hulls of old fishing boats lay stranded on rocks. At capacity, Lake Cachuma holds almost two hundred thousand acre-feet of water. Because of the drought occurring in eleven of the last fourteen years, the reservoir is at nowhere near capacity. Down to a quarter of its maximum water supply, it will be empty of usable water by October 2015, state experts say. Santa Barbara is moving toward reactivating its expensive saltwater desalination plant in order to help the city survive the current water crisis.
California is a drought-prone place. But scientists say that this is the worst dry period in more than a thousand years; the last such time occurred in the Middle Ages. It provides evidence of what is expected to be a widespread “megadrought” across the American Southwest. Deserts are creeping northward, and researchers like Columbia University’s Jason Smerdon worry that “the twenty-first century projections make the [previous] megadroughts seem like quaint walks through the Garden of Eden.” With the Sierra Nevada snowpack at its lowest level in recorded history, California instituted water restrictions on residents and businesses while attempting to find a way to keep water flowing to its farms. The state is draining its underground aquifers, some of which have been contaminated by industrial waste and others of which are “nonrenewable” sources of water. These natural aquifers are essentially large reservoirs created millions of years ago, deposits of ancient rain and runoff known as “fossil water.” When that water is either polluted or depleted, it cannot be replaced. Stanford University estimates that 60 percent of California’s water needs are currently being met by underground water pumped by increasingly expensive wells. The water table is falling; supplies of even this hidden source are rapidly shrinking. Business news network CNBC reports that some experts are beginning to suggest that the United States may have to “migrate people out of California.” And it is not just California. More than forty states are anticipating freshwater shortages in the next decade.
Even where there is water, there is still trouble. On a late July morning in 2014, as I walked along the Potomac River, I noticed that the water was green in spots. An anomaly? Odd light? As the weeks went by, the green turned an almost florescent lime and spread throughout the marsh. Herons, duck, and geese fled. The water was essentially dead, the birds’ food contaminated by phosphates and nitrates. The fish and other marine creatures either have moved to safer waters or are dead. The toxins that killed them come mostly from industrial waste (much of it from illegal dumping), chemical farming, and lawn-control products upstream. In the decade that my family has lived here, there had never been such a sizable algal bloom. And it is not only the Potomac. Around the area, toxins have shown up in other streams and rivers – and in drinking wells – throughout the Mid-Atlantic. The Potomac, as beautiful as it can be, is one of the ten most threatened rivers in America. I see it each morning with my own eyes, and it weighs on my mind and heart.
Although some face more immediate dangers than others, most of the world’s waterways and watersheds are endangered. The Potomac flows into the Chesapeake Bay. The bay struggles for life as chemical-laden waters run into it from farms and industries along its rivers and streams. A coal-mining accident in West Virginia? That water eventually winds up as part of the Chesapeake. Water used to cool nuclear plants in Pennsylvania? To the Chesapeake. Chemical crop fertilizers, some even under threat of EPA ban, bleeding off fields into a stream? Straight to the bay. Lawn fertilizer from new waterfront developments? Fish kill. Flush the toilet? Run the dishwasher? All that domestic water comes from the Chesapeake Bay watershed and returns to the bay. For all the its beauty and the life and livelihood it has given to generations who dwell on its shores, the Chesapeake watershed functions as a giant industrial and domestic toilet. The remains of everything that seventeen million people and their businesses do, whether intentional or not, winds up in creeks and streams and travels down the rivers and out to the bay.
Of course, it is not just California or the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Where water is not plentiful – or where it was once plentiful – watersheds are actually drying up, becoming both siltier and saltier, more subject to damaging floods and erosion, more threatened by mining and drilling, and they face uncertain effects from global climate change. Where water is still plentiful, it is increasingly polluted or poisoned to the point of being unusable. We are facing great uncertainty regarding the future of water. In California, there is talk about migration. The same is true on the Chesapeake Bay – where the disappearance of oysters and crabs has led to a collapse of fishing towns and the dislocation of entire populations.
The problems multiply beyond North America and Europe, continents with extensive (even if polluted) watersheds. The Indus River is one of Asia’s most important rivers, key to life and stability in China, Pakistan, and India. Yet, as a result of shrinking snow packs, industrialization, and deforestation, the river no longer flows as it once did, having become polluted, full of sediment, and more saline. Evidence is mounting that the course of the river is actually reversing itself. And the loss of natural wetlands has resulted in more violent inland effects from storms. In the Punjab breadbasket, farming and fishing are in radical decline. Thousands of young men who once could depend on meaningful work in those vital industries find themselves with no future. There has been an exodus of the young unemployed from the Punjab to cities such as Karachi, where the disaffected have become prime targets for conversion to Islamic radicalism.
The Indus crisis illustrates that threatened water can lead to threatening religion. From the Indus to Gaza to the U. S.–Mexico border, water is the source of great political and religious tension, and often war. As water recedes or becomes unusual and as food supplies become endangered, conflict will increase. This, combined with population growth and the need for agricultural water, may make many agree with science journalist Fred Pearce that “without a second agricultural revolution that targets water, a ‘blue revolution,’ the gains of the past generation could be wiped out as rivers run dry, underground water reserves are exhausted, and fields are caked in salt.” One need only look at any great river to see such problems; even the world’s most isolated rivers and watersheds struggle to survive. From the humble oyster and low reservoirs to islands of floating trash and global terrorism, the future of water is the human future. And it may well be the future of God, too.