Reflections on water, source of basic happiness

Wang Yong
The World Water Day provides an opportunity to reflect on how water allows us to lead meaningful lives.
Wang Yong

Today is World Water Day. Launched in 1993 by the United Nations, it is a clarion call for water conservation, and I’ve never been more inspired to reflect on how water is essential to a meaningful life.

Like many other Chinese, I have stayed at home as much as possible since late January to join the nation’s effort to stifle the novel coronavirus, which typically spreads through airborne particles, or physical contact. So far, this “stay-at-home” strategy has worked well, as it has done away with unnecessary contact, hence reducing the risk of contagion.

Certainly, some businesses suffered losses, typically restaurants and hotels. I am not particularly worried about that, because business will pick up as people’s lives gradually return to normal. 

Rather, my current preoccupation is how have most of us succeeded in staying at home so long? In my case, never before have I worked from home or stayed at home almost every day for nearly two months. What on Earth made me and so many others do that?

In retrospect, I find myself quite at ease with this new lifestyle, except for a few inconveniences such as delayed repairs or visit to the dentist. Of course, there were greater inconveniences for the physically weaker, but for the average healthy people, staying at home for more than one month has proved highly workable in many parts of China.

Collectively, we have reduced consumption one way or another. I used to dine out hard and party hard, believing they were part and parcel of a full life. This time, like many of my fellow countrymen, I was deprived of all this, and yet I lived well, just like everyone else, because “staying at home” really drove home the point of “less is more.” No seafood, no beer, but I rested ultimately contented with a cup of tea and a few dishes of vegetables – plus breathing clean air.

Many people will certainly resume their old lifestyles, for sure, spending more time at restaurants and parties as the virus retreats. As occasions rise, I may well follow suit, but deep in my heart, I now know that I would be happiest if I could just have a cup of clean water and a breath of fresh air. People have come to appreciate what actually makes them happiest. Men and women can live without much material wealth, but not without clean water and air.

This brings us back to the topic of World Water Day. It reminds humankind that we should never sacrifice water, the source of life, in our pursuit of happiness. 

Economist Tim Jackson pointed out as early as in 2009 that prosperity is more than material wealth. In his view, it is a sense of security that allows people to live happier, more meaningful lives, based on access to clean water, among other things. He warned that strategies thoughtlessly preoccupied with growth did not adequately recognize the physical limits of the planet.

“The (world’s) new macroeconomics will need to be ecologically and socially literate, ending the folly of separating the economy from society and the environment,” he wrote.

Alex Prud’homme, a longtime journalist from America, once said the conventional wisdom about fresh water, at least in the affluent West, is hopelessly clouded by how easy it is to use all the water you want by simply turning on the tap. 

“We... take water for granted. We pollute it unthinkingly, price it too cheaply and take too much of it from the environment too quickly – usually in the service of short-term gains,” he warned. “Water is a deceptively plain substance. Yet it is the basis for life.”

This year’s World Water Day calls attention to the relationship between water and climate change, because the latter affects water supplies. If no timely action is taken to mitigate global warming, this “deceptively plain substance” that forms "the basis for life" will indeed be in jeopardy.

“If global temperatures rise 1.5 degrees Celsius, the population suffering from water shortages will increase by 4 percent. If global temperatures rise 2 degrees Celsius, the population suffering shortages will grow by 8 percent,” reported the China Meteorological News on March 18.

“By 2050, the number of people who lack sufficient water at least one month per year will soar to more than 5 billion, from 3.6 billion today, causing unprecedented competition for water,” noted a report last year from the Global Commission on Adaptation, co-managed by the World Resources Institute and the Global Center on Adaptation.

But from the philosophical point of view, what we believe determines what we do. When people around the world come to regard clean water (and air) as the very source of a simple yet happy life, we will naturally refrain from pursuing material wealth at the cost of water.

China’s per capita resources of water are about one-fourth of the world average, according to the China Meteorological News. As China continues to improve its economic structure, the paper noted, water for industrial and agricultural use has declined in proportion, while that for people’s daily lives has increased.

“China has a population of 1.4 billion, so if everyone can save a drop of water a day, a total of 70 cubic meters of water will be saved, which can meet the demand of 35,000 people for drinking a day,” wrote the newspaper.

Why not?

A few cups of tea a day can make us happy enough. Let’s save as much water as we can for others in need of a basic substance that makes up around 60 percent of our own bodies.

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