In Search of the Water of Life

OVER two thousand years ago, a thriving city of 30,000 people grew to prominence in the Arabian Desert. Despite the area’s unforgiving climate, where average rainfall measures only six inches [150 mm] a year, the citizens of Petra learned to cope with little water. And Petra grew rich and prosperous.

 The Nabataean inhabitants of Petra had no electrical water pumps. They did not build massive dams. But they did know how to harvest and conserve their water. A huge network of small reservoirs, dikes, channels, and cisterns enabled them to funnel the carefully hoarded water into their city and onto their small plots of land. Hardly a drop was wasted. Their wells and cisterns were so well built that modern-day Bedouin still use them.

“Hydrology is the unseen beauty of Petra,” marvels one water engineer. “Those guys were absolute geniuses.” Recently, Israeli experts have been seeking to tap the genius of the Nabataeans, who also cultivated crops in the Negeb, where rainfall rarely exceeds four inches a year [100 mm]. Agronomists have examined the remains of thousands of small Nabataean farms whose owners skillfully channeled the winter rain to their small terraced fields.

Already lessons learned from the Nabataeans are helping farmers in the drought-plagued Sahel states of Africa. Modern methods of water conservation, however, can be just as effective. On Lanzarote, one of the Canary Islands, which lie off the coast of Africa, farmers have learned how to grow grapes and figs where rainfall is practically nonexistent. They plant the vines or fig trees at the bottom of rounded hollows and then cover the soil with a layer of volcanic ash to prevent evaporation. Sufficient dew can then trickle down to the roots to ensure a good crop.

Low-Tech Solutions

Similar stories of adaptation to arid climates can be found all over the world—such as among the Bishnoi people, who live in the Thar Desert of India; the Turkana women of Kenya; and the Navajo Indians of Arizona, U.S.A. Their techniques for harvesting rainwater, learned over many centuries, are proving much more reliable for solving agricultural needs than impressive high-tech solutions.

The 20th century was an age of dam-building. Mighty rivers were harnessed, and massive irrigation systems were developed. One scientist estimates that 60 percent of the world’s streams and rivers have been controlled in some way. While such projects brought some benefits, ecologists point to the damage done to the environment, not to mention the effect on the millions of people who lost their homes.

Furthermore, despite good intentions, the benefits of these schemes rarely reach farmers who desperately need the water. Referring to irrigation projects in India, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi said: “For 16 years we have poured money out. The people have got nothing back, no irrigation, no water, no increase in production, no help in their daily life.”

Low-tech solutions, on the other hand, have proved more useful and less harmful to the environment. Small ponds and dams constructed by local communities have been very successful in China, where six million have been built. In Israel, people have found that with a little ingenuity, the same water can be used first for washing, then for sanitation, and finally for irrigation.

Another practical solution is drip irrigation, which conserves the soil and uses only 5 percent of the water required by traditional methods. Wise use of water also means choosing crops that suit a dry climate, such as sorghum or millet, rather than those that need extensive irrigation, such as sugarcane or corn.

With a little effort, domestic users and industry can likewise cut back on their demands for water. A pound of paper, for example, can be manufactured with about a pint of water if the factory’s water is recycled—a saving of over 99 percent. Mexico City  has replaced conventional toilets with ones that use only one third the amount of water. The city also sponsored an information campaign that aimed to reduce water usage significantly.

What Is Needed for Success

Solutions to the water crisis—and most environmental problems—require changes in attitudes. People need to be cooperative rather than selfish, to make reasonable sacrifices where necessary, and to be determined to take care of the earth for its future inhabitants. In this regard Sandra Postel, in her book Last Oasis—Facing Water Scarcity, explains: “We need a water ethic—a guide to right conduct in the face of complex decisions about natural systems we do not and cannot fully understand.”

Such “a water ethic,” of course, requires more than just a local approach. Countries as well as neighbors need to cooperate, since rivers are no respecters of national boundaries. “Concerns about water quantity and quality—historically treated as separate—must now be seen as a global issue,” says Ismail Serageldin in his report Beating the Water Crisis.

But getting nations to handle global issues is no easy task, as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan admits. “In today’s globalized world,” he says, “the mechanisms available for global action are hardly more than embryonic. It is high time we gave more concrete meaning to the idea of the ‘international community.’”

Clearly, an adequate supply of good water—although vital—is not all that is needed if we are to enjoy a healthy and happy life. Humans must first recognize an obligation to the One who provided both water and life itself. (Psalm 36:9; 100:3) And rather than shortsightedly exploit the earth and its resources, they need to ‘cultivate and take care of it,’ as our Creator instructed our original parents to do.—Genesis 2:8, 15; Psalm 115:16.

A Superior Kind of Water

Since water is so vital, it is not surprising that in the Bible it is given a symbolic significance. Indeed, to enjoy life as we were meant to, we must recognize the source of this symbolic water. We must also learn to reflect the attitude of the woman in the first century who requested of Jesus Christ: “Sir, give me this water.” (John 4:15) Consider what happened.

Jesus stopped at a deep well near modern-day Nablus—evidently the same well that people from around the world often visit even to this day. At the time, a Samaritan woman also came to the well. Like many women of the first century, she no doubt made regular trips there in order to keep her home supplied with water. But Jesus said that he could provide her with “living water”—a source of water that would never run out.—John 4:10, 13, 14.

Understandably, the woman’s interest was aroused. But, of course, the “living water” that Jesus spoke about was not literal water. Jesus had in mind the spiritual provisions that can enable people to live forever. There is a link, however, between symbolic and literal water—we need both to enjoy life to the full.

On more than one occasion, God provided his people with a solution to an actual water shortage. He miraculously supplied water for the huge crowd of Israelite refugees who crossed the Sinai desert on their way to the Promised Land. (Exodus 17:1-6; Numbers 20:2-11) Elisha, a prophet of God, cleansed the well of Jericho that had become contaminated. (2 Kings 2:19-22) And when a remnant of repentant Israelites returned from Babylon to their homeland, God led them to ‘water in the wilderness.’—Isaiah 43:14, 19-21.

 An inexhaustible supply of water is what our planet urgently needs today. Since our Creator, Jehovah God, provided a solution to water problems in the past, will he not do so again in the future? The Bible assures us that he will. Describing conditions under his promised Kingdom, God says: “Upon bare hills I shall open up rivers, and in the midst of the valley plains, springs. I shall make the wilderness into a reedy pool of water, and the waterless land into sources of water, . . . in order that people may see and know and pay heed and have insight at the same time, that the very hand of Jehovah has done this.”—Isaiah 41:18, 20.

The Bible promises us that when that time comes, people “will not go hungry, neither will they go thirsty.” (Isaiah 49:10) Thanks to a new global administration, there will be a definitive solution to the water crisis. This administration—the Kingdom, for which Jesus taught us to pray—will operate “by means of justice and by means of righteousness, from now on and to time indefinite.” (Isaiah 9:6, 7; Matthew 6:9, 10) As a result, people everywhere on earth will finally become a true international community.—Psalm 72:5, 7, 8.

If we search now for the water of life, we can look forward to seeing the day when there will truly be enough water for everyone.

[Pictures on page 10]

Above: Ancient inhabitants of Petra knew how to conserve water

Below: A Nabataean water channel in Petra

[Credit Line]

Garo Nalbandian

[Picture on page 10]

Farmers on one of the Canary Islands have learned how to grow plants where rainfall is nearly nonexistent

[Pictures on page 13]

What did Jesus mean when he promised this woman “living water”?