Building peace in the minds of men and women

The Wonder of water

Covering more than seventy per cent of the surface of the globe, water is the most common substance on earth. It is in the air we breathe and in the ground we walk on. It fills the oceans, rivers and lakes. It is the source and sustainer of life without which neither plant nor animal nor man could live.

Every living thing consists mostly of water. A human being is about 65 per cent water, an elephant about 70 per cent, a potato about 80 per cent and a tomato an amazing 95 per cent.

The wonder of water does not end there. It is both our slave and our master. It helps to regulate the global climate, and with its tremendous force it shapes the earth, at times destroying man's puny constructions. We use it for bathing, cooking and recreation. It carries away our wastes and irrigates our fields and, when taken from certain sources, has unequalled therapeutic properties. It is an inexhaustible, self-renewing resource.

The benison of water is not evenly distributed. Although clean fresh water is vital for life and for health, over half the people in the Third World do not have clean water to drink and three-quarters of them have no sanitation, yet more than three-quarters of human illness is related to lack of clean drinking water and sanitation.

This is why, in November 1980, the GeneralAssembly of the United Nations declared the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade (1981-1990), whose target is "Clean Water and Adequate Sanitation for All by 1990".

Unesco's involvement in water problems goes back to 1950 when it launched a programme of research on the world's arid zones. The purpose of its current International Hydrological Programme (IHP) is to develop a scientific basis for the rational management of water resources and to help' find solutions to specific water problems in countries with varying geographical conditions and levels of technological and economic development.

Badly managed, water, or the lack of it, can be a destroyer. Ill-conceived irrigation schemes can ruin agricultural land as effectively as drought and desertification, the two great scourges now affecting huge areas of Africa. Bad land-use practices, such as overgrazing and deforestation, can make water a prime agent of erosion. Bad industrial practices can turn rivers into sewers and "the gentle rain from heaven" into an acid-bearing blight that can kill a lake and destroy a forest.

There is as much water on earth today as there has ever been or ever will be. We must look after it.

Editor-in-chief: Edouard Glissant

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January 1985