by Raju Peddada
Our passionate drip ignites life,
as the amniotic drip trumpets our arrival.
In our brow's drip, ambitions are realized,
as the wasteful drip displaces our wealth.
The political drips bleed nations dry,
while the IV drip presages our exit.
"Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans."
—Jacques Cousteau (1910-1997)
[Author's note: I will indulge in a moderate amount of prolixity in explicating something that is profoundly indispensable to life, yet terrifying and unfathomable. Of all the elements on earth, water, occupying 70.9% of the surface of the earth, is the quietest, the most abundant, and the most unrelenting, despite its form. Consider this: the Titanic and all its 50,000-plus tons floated in the small Southampton estuary, on not more than an average of 18 feet of water, before its maiden and last voyage. There is only one word that explains water better than any other, and that is "displacement." Folks, water just "hates" to be displaced. Its molecular structure of one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms are connected by a covalent bond. A chemical bonding that manifests itself like that mercurial liquid terminator corralling the little puddles into a sinister ungiving body again, in the movie Terminator II. And while the media swims in circles around the images of a devastated Japan, I wanted to wade out of it for a different perspective, something that is small, seemingly unassuming, but insidious and destructive in every society. The ubiquitous drip.]
(Swans - April 25, 2011) There is something about water that is terrifying it seems to harmlessly lap and lurk around us, but then within seconds it could swallow us, metaphorically as well as in reality, without a trace. We cannot stop water from enveloping us, internally nor externally. The voluminous form, density, and the energy, is simply overwhelming to keep it under any kind of control. On a stormy 23rd of August 2007, I came back from a family outing and opened the door to my basement, and as soon as I saw the shimmering reflection on the still, dark, and mysterious body of liquid, a chill ascended my spine, on its way to my brain. It was only eight inches of water, but it looked like a squarish well that was ten thousand feet deep, straight down from where the steps met the water. I stood there staring in dread and disbelief at this potential abyss, as a psychological siren went off. I did not see it as eight inches of water. Suffice it to say that it soaked me in more ways than one.
Tsunami is a huge contiguous wall of displaced water that rushes onto low lying areas in certain vulnerable regions in the world. It is the movement and rise of the tectonic plates that displaces water in an outward direction from the epicenter, in small waves of the deep at over 400 miles per hour, turning into a monstrous tidal wall as it reaches the shallows. The unfathomable power of geological transformation, and philosophically, the frightening power of nature, is inexorable, magnificent as well as cataclysmic. For the last few weeks we have been drowned in the screaming headlines of an earthquake measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale, followed by giant tsunamis that had destroyed north-east coastal Japan -- triggering a potential nuclear disaster again for this, the most resilient of nations. I cannot imagine what the Japanese must have felt after seeing what they saw in broad daylight. A gargantuan, inescapable, and uncontrollably invasive body of water, coming in like a gray nightmarish ooze, in six-meters' height, carrying everything away with it. Buildings, houses, tankers, yachts and cars, reducing them to compacted debris and piling them up in the most surreal, astounding, and visually incongruous juxtapositions. Yachts on top of houses, tankers corralled by electric poles, big boats arranged like cashews on a tray miles inland, some boats lodged like arrowheads on the side of buildings, lumber coagulated into piles of match sticks, and houses floating ten miles into the sea of Japan. Unequivocally, this tsunami had also launched another ten thousand black tsunamis within the psyches of those directly affected, leaving nothing but emotional debris in their wake. This is not even addressing the multitude of anxieties gnawing the minds of the seemingly unaffected, way south of the epicenter.
The most astonishing yet surprisingly believable of all was how a baby had survived in its blanket, when everything surrounding it was carried away with vengeance. How two dogs managed to cling to life after riding the gray wall of water bristling with debris for hours. Many issues are simply inexplicable in such catastrophes. The incongruous becomes the ubiquitous. The unexpected becomes the norm. The most secure are washed away, while the ones without hope of survival come out unscathed. Unlike fire, which cleanses the landscape, water leaves an unbearable rot to contend with. Bloated carcasses of every living thing, busy with maggots that make the dead bodies flex with imperceptible movements, as they are being reduced from within. The agglutinative and unyielding sand and silt over picture albums, toys, and other personals, accompanied by a gut-twisting stench. Water wreaks the heaviest irretrievable damage of all the elements, which visually lingers for a while in us. What was redeeming in the face of this Japanese tragedy was that there were seemingly no incidents of looting reported, as opposed to the rampant looting and black marketing after Katrina and the Haitian earthquake. A testament to their cultural sophistication.
Geological cataclysms are welcome tools for the religions, particularly the ones that base their entire operating philosophy on fear, and use fear as a controlling and committing mechanism for their acolytes. The religions of the desert gleefully rationalize these disasters as retribution for our sins. This despite the fact that geological science manifestly proves and explicates in no uncertain terms that it is the shifting mantle over the core that results in volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis. We cannot deny the fact that these material upheavals trigger our own inner emotional upheavals that are infinitely more destructive. In fact, devastating with irretrievable losses. Tsunamis not only wash away our homes, but they wash away our hope, if we are not careful. This is why a little baby transforms into an enormous symbol of survival and resilience, even dogs become our straws that we hang on to. In the natural devastation of material elements, it is the intangible that give us hope.
"Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all."
—Herman Melville (1819-1891), Moby Dick, 1851
It is not my intention to indulge in the reduction of this human catastrophe and the suffrage of the Japanese people, who I must say, have comported themselves with dignity, infinite fortitude, restraint, and civility, becoming a model for the rest of the globe in dealing with this scale of destruction. Can we expect this anywhere else? I doubt it. Some estimates put the invoice for the Japanese clean up and restructuring at an ungodly sum of $309 billion, the largest such expense ever. Almost twice larger than what we spent on Katrina.
The Middle East boil-over had been temporarily put on the back burner, while the Japanese disaster is what every news agency was beamed on at the moment. It is predictable and symmetrical in the scheme of things, but this very predictability is what induces me to seek the opposite, the asymmetry. Water is the issue here, and water, besides being the libation of life, the amniotic carrier of life, is also an atrophying agent in unsuspecting ways. While everyone is preoccupied with the Pacific, I wanted to contemplate on the smallest body of water in our homes. The drop of water, the drip and the ensuing waste.
I want to address this miniscule body of water, referred to as a drip, the deceptively simple drip. It is not the tsunami, my friends, it is the seemingly innocuous, unassuming, modest, yet insidious and devious drip of water that will destroy us. How is that possible? Tsunamis are infrequent and cannot affect every landmass, but the ubiquitous drip is ever present on every landmass, whereever humans are packed closely in their urban centers. While I write this, somewhere in my house, as well as yours, there is water dripping, which we cannot hear. The drip is ever present. Tsunamis are not.
This is not a metaphor. We can only hear our life drip away at night, when all else is quiet. In the din of living, all insidiousness, dangers and the malevolent forces are obscured, but they become naggingly apparent in that nightly drip. It's the drip that works us over without us feeling anything. The saline drip in the hospital, the coolant drip that dehydrates your engine, that nightly drip caused by your prostate, the drip that turns into a torrential bleeding, if you cannot control the expenses and overheads. When you see and hear something dripping, an expense is on the horizon, whether it approaches slowly or rapidly. A drip encapsulates and symbolizes expense or even danger in the offing, like the "O" ring drip on the Challenger mission, a few seconds into flight in 1986. The drip from the roof, the chemotherapy drip, the drip from the nose, or the drip from the faucet, all constitute expense, waste, and even death.
The drip is a disaster in the making. A drip's volume is about 1/5 to 1/3 of a milliliter, as one liter is 4,000 drips, and a gallon equals 15,140 drips, defined and measured by the US Department of Interior and the Water Reclamation Authority. I realized that the drip in our bathroom is costing me $33 more on the water bill every month, which is $396 per year. If twenty houses in the neighborhood each have each one drip, it comes out to $7,920 each per year, and in ten years we have collectively dripped $79,200 away. This is how we waste water, which eventually washes us away; it erodes us mentally, physically and emotionally, without us being aware of it. But wait! We cannot live without that drip. It gives us the security of having water at our fingertips. In some countries, the drip of a communal tap is equivalent to the drip of blood, in the many brawls that ensue over the water. We fight for water, live on water, and perish in water. If I have to measure our longevity, let's say an average of 75 years of life, and one second constitutes a drip, as in 60 drips in 60 seconds, we will pass away within 40,000,000 of these drips. It is not a tsunami that will drown us, it is the little drip that will.
The abundance of water belies its scarcity. After we have burned up all the fossil fuels, we will turn to water. All the future wars will be about water, and they will be more viscous. In some regions the battles have already begun. If you think the Middle East is in turmoil, wait till all the oil is done and the regimes have escaped with their accounts to Switzerland, Argentina, or the Caymans, and the water is $120 a barrel. Baths and showers will be a thing of the past. I foresee acrimony developing between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada over water issues. We are already seeing states battle for rights over water here in the U.S. I see bloodbaths between India and Pakistan over the waters of the Indus River. While thousands in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India get washed away in fresh water floods every year, they have no drinking, washing, or bathing water. Water management in those nations is not even in the germ of their national deliberations.
There will be floating cities on water, as humans will be crowded off the land within a span of two or three generations. This brings into our focus another issue, reinstating the exploration and colonization of Mars, as an alpha priority, even if it takes the next few generations. For that matter, why not requisition mothballed ships that are still operational, but were the victims of planned obsolescence, to house populations in the shallows? Water consumption and waste is and has been the seminal issue of the day. I hate sounding like Jack D. Ripper, the base commander in the Stanley Kubrick's cinematic gem, Dr. Strangelove.
My regrets for this diversion into the politics of water; this is about wasting water, and here are some frightening and piercing facts. Not taking into account the water cycle of precipitation, evaporation, runoffs, condensation, natural storage, and discharge, all of earth's water will fit into a drop that measures only 860 miles in diameter. That would be 332.5 cubic miles, and a cubic mile is 1.1 trillion gallons. Here is the distribution "pie" of earth's water at 96.5% being ocean water and 2.5% as fresh water. If that was dehydrating, consider this: 99% of earth's water is unusable, and only 1% is good for us, of which 99% is groundwater and the rest in lakes and rivers. Groundwater is getting contaminated everywhere, from uncontrolled mining, industrial waste runoff, sewage seepage and unauthorized dumping, and other reasons. Progress is a single-edged sword; the material progress is certainly lopping off the natural balance. When do we stop subsidizing water and our wasteful habits?
Let me bring this equation to our personal level. Let's filter these brutal facts to our individual reality and see what we are doing to this life-sustaining source. Ninety-five percent of the water entering ours homes goes down the drain. On an average, we let 4 gallons runoff while each one brushes their teeth, and even this does not guarantee beautiful teeth. On the contrary, teeth in India and Africa look much healthier. Why? Another whole issue for another day, let's leave it at that. Leaky faucets at one drip per second waste 2,700 gallons each year for every household. How many leaky faucets are out there? And to compound this insanity, we use 27% of our fresh drinking water to flush away our turds. Most in the world get by on only 3 gallons of "unfresh" water, as we flush down the same amount in fresh drinkable water after one "sitting!" The reality is unreal. We actually are flushing ourselves down the toilet, while we make a big deal of the tsunamis. If we compute the metrics for the amount of water that is mismanaged, contaminated, and wasted all over the world, I am sure it will top more than $300 billion per year.
The drip is dehydrating us, while we sit and consume the dreadful news on the tsunami. We are very much like elephants, destroying our own Eden of sustenance in the process of depending on it. Also, I cannot help but see it this way: if a drop of water is a proverbial world unto itself, we then are those narcissistic organisms within that keep rolling that drop to the edge of the leaf, high up in the canopy, with searing asphalt directly below. This is where the demarcation between metaphor and reality vaporizes, as we start to live in the no-man's land of denial, parched of all sanity.
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)