The life of man is deeply tied to water. Our survival instinct should suggest that water - and with it, all the natural resources that we have found on this Earth - is precious, limited. We are allowed to use them but they do not belong to us and we are held to preserve them for those who will come after us.

Nico Zardo

In one of the starting scenes of Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, two groups of ancestors of ours, represented as two large monkeys, are fighting for control of a water hole. Upon first meeting, those who yell and scream the most prevail and send the rivals away. In a second scene, perhaps referring to many years later, when the situation repeats itself, one of the hominids, worried by a rival’s intention to predominate on the water, reacts by striking him with a large animal bone. His violent gesture is imitated by his companions and they, too, strike the rival repeatedly, until his lifeless body falls to the ground. The interpretation of the scene is that one of the very first deadly encounters between hominids was caused by competition for water.

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ypEaGQb6dJk) The reason is not difficult to find. Man, 70% of whose body is composed of water, has a special and deep relationship with this element due to the paramount need to keep alive. Without food, we can survive two, three weeks; without water, only a few days…

COSMOGONIES, RITUALS, MYTHS, LEGENDS passed down through millennia in every culture indicate water as the essential element for every creation. It is the foundation of all living forms, omnipresent element in every part of the Earth. Stories born around rivers, springs, vortices, pools and wells are often connected to mysterious presences and forces of the occult. The myth of the great thirst felt by the deceased, diffused in a wide area of Eurasia, attributing to the deceased a heart-wrenching nostalgia for life, seems to reveal a sort of memory for the primordial character of water.

THALES OF MILETUS (5th century AD), who was very familiar with Egyptian and Mesopotamian culture, considered water the arche, primary material element, and did so in virtue of empirical observations on the importance of generative processes. The Greek philosopher is the first in the tradition of western philosophy to explain the origins of the cosmos through a concrete substance like water. In Christian culture, miraculous waters often lead us to the cults of Saint Agnes, of the Virgin Mary, or of more saints. For example, in France, the bodies of two martyrs - Saint Valriano and Saint Bausango - were thrown into two separate wells of two French cities so that their water acquired curative properties. Through these credences so near to the people, the Church, with time, tried to Christianize the sources already object of pagan cults.

Water is a transversal element, fluid, changing, unique in its ability to assume different states: liquid, solid, gaseous, and different forms: snow, rain, ice, vapor, air, flowing in every part of the earth, nature and history.

WHEN MAN WENT FROM NOMADIC LIFE TO FARMING (over 10,000 before our era), it was thanks to the “domestication” of water that, channeled in conduits or collected in basins, made agricultural life and breeding possible. From the valleys of the Tigris and the Euphrates, of the Indus and the Nile, extraordinarily opulent models of civilization developed. Excess production freed man from immediately pressing needs and allowed him to focus on trade, handicraft, travel and the arts. In the sixth millennium BC, the garden city of Babylon could boast a gigantic irrigation system that distributed water on 800,000 hectares, while its famous Hanging Gardens were watered through so many canals that no one could count them.

Where it was not possible to get water from springs or rivers, in particular in desert areas, man tried to collect it through foggara or qãnat: an ingenious system comprised of a series of aligned wells that drain underground water and rainwater, which is then collected in an underground canal that connects them all and leads the water to the village or to oases.

WITH THE CONTROL OF WATER, propitiated by relative divinities, social life grew, favoring the development of urban civilization. For military needs and to fend off malaria, aqueducts were built that from safe springs brought water inside the city. Fountains became essential elements and pipe systems increasingly came to represent architecturally important works. In the 2nd century AD, Rome was served by 11 aqueducts and a network of main ducts that exceeded 500 kilometers and a quantity of water transported that could reach 500,000 cubic meters per day. Considering that the imperial capital at one point exceeded one million inhabitants, this system guaranteed each inhabitant 500 liters of water per day, the average consumption per person in a modern metropolis like Milan! The Greek historian Strabo wrote in his Geographica: “And water is brought into the city through the aqueducts in such quantities that veritable rivers flow through the city and the sewers; and almost every house has cisterns, and water pipes, and copious fountains.”

WITH THE DECLINE OF THE EMPIRE and the barbaric invasions that cut off the aqueducts, many fountains dried out and water had to once again be taken from the river. The moralizing vein of Christianity opposed the pagan ideal of a hedonistic rapport with baths and with spas, branding them as sinful, hence distancing man from water. Besides wells, in the Early Middle Ages, the major churches disposed of a water spring where worshipers could refresh and wash themselves before accessing the sacred building. In the medieval villages enclosed by defense walls and lacking sewerage systems due to lack of running water, all kinds of refuse ended up in the streets, creating critical hygienic conditions and a high risk of disease. In Pa-ris, before the 16th century, the only obligation for those who threw urine out of their windows was to shout “Look out for the water!”.

WHILE THE CHURCH WITH ITS COUNTER-REFORMATION, pursuing its phobia for nudity, contrasted all hygienic practices, the monks in the fields maintained their roles of holders of knowledge begun in the 5th century, and by using water wisely, begin perfecting irrigation practices (especially in Lombardy) useful for the progress of agriculture. The diffusion of hydraulic mills multiplied the productivity of human strength forty-fold, and starting at the end of the 7th century they will be used - in addition to grinding cereals - also for the textile industry, for metal processing and, from the 13th to the 18th centuries, for papermaking. And it is water that will give a great spur to the progress of man when - with steam power first and hydroelectric energy later - it is used to power machine tools, ships and trains in every corner of the Planet.

AT THE END OF THE 19TH CENTURY, MAN ESTABLISHES A NEW RELATIONSHIP WITH WATER. With the comforts of modernity and the notion of potability propitiated by the studies of Pasteur, he establishes a relationship with hygiene that allows urban socialization on a metropolis scale.

Today, water is not something for everyone: according to Water.org, 10% of the planet’s population does not have access to drinkable water and 1/3 has no sanitation. Every 90 seconds, a child dies from diseases linked to water. These tragic statistics underscore that water is vital for the survival of the human species.

Its growing importance is becoming imposing because, faced with its limited quantity, the increment in the world’s population makes it even more precious: in many areas, it is lacking and is becoming a reason for conflict in many areas of our Planet. 

Our survival instinct should suggest that water - and with it, all the natural resources that we have found on this Earth - is precious, limited.

We are allowed to use them but they do not belong to us and we are held to preserve them for those who will come after us. *

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