Where’s the water?

NASA, where's the life?

NASA of the US: We have found ‘evidence of a wetter Mars’ (28 October 2008, upi.com). Drylands of the world: We don’t want evidence of the existence of water once upon a time; we want the water now!

On second thought, we can learn from what the NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) has learned.

NASA: ‘Water most likely flowed in the distant past on Mars, carving channels and other features clearly visible on its surface. But other than in the form of clouds and ice, liquid water cannot exist on the planet’s surface today, thanks to the thinness of its atmosphere’ (2000, Andrew Bridges, space.com). Frankenstein: As far as I’m concerned, Mars is dead.

In last month’s report, NASA had observed hydrated silica, or opal, ‘spread across large regions of Mars. That, scientists said, suggests liquid water was on the planet’s surface as recently as 2 billion years ago’ (upi.com).

I said dead. Water was there 2 billion years ago. Not today. The fate of Planet Mars is going to be the fate of Planet Earth if we don’t watch where the water is going! And if the atmosphere in Planet Earth remains hostile to any life form other than our own egoistic selves.

From the science of exploring the universe out there, let us turn to the science of understanding this world right here. On 03 November 2008, in a scientific meeting at Istanbul, Turkey, in his Introductory Statement as Chair of the CST (Committee on Science and Technology) of the UNCCD (United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification), William Dar says:

We must continually remind ourselves of how important our task is. We live on a precious planet that hosts abundant, diverse and intelligent life that is unique in the universe. If we fail, the consequences are disastrous. We must use science to become better stewards of our precious inheritance.

Dar is Director General of ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics). The CST is meeting 3-14 November at Istanbul in its First Special Session.

Here, I am going to reduce that ‘precious inheritance’ Dar is talking about to only one thing: Water. NASA, if you’re looking for intelligent life, you might as well start with Planet Earth.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan says on 22 March 2005 in a video message: ‘We need to increase water efficiency, especially in agriculture.’ In agriculture, from high school 50 years ago, I came to know we are The Water Wasters (see my ‘The Water People,’ in this same blog).

Since my dear Philippines is agricultural and remains largely non-industrial, I’m interested in the science of crops; and since I’m an Ilocano and can trace my roots from the North (Rosario, La Union), I’m interested in the drylands. And since I’m a science writer, I’m interested in how the drylands can become more fertile and productive. Water is a good start. How can we be intelligent with water?

Be careful when you say ‘water efficiency’ – for instance, if you say ‘irrigation facilities for rice improved water efficiency in Central Luzon,’ that is misleading, to say the least; what you really mean is that the facilities improved water availability. Water facilities don’t improve efficiency by themselves – it’s the rice farmers who use water who do. Or not.

I’m concerned because on 26 August 2008, I decided to focus my writing on the intelligent use of water. I thought, ‘Water is food, is health, is life.’  Along this line, in 1998, in reasoning out the Mars probes, NASA asked (mars.jpl.nasa.gov): ‘What caused the change in Mars’ climate? Were the conditions necessary for life to originate ever present on Mars? Could there be bacteria in the subsurface alive today? These are the questions that lead us to explore Mars.’  In the last part of that paragraph, NASA asked, ‘ What are the minimal conditions necessary for the formation of life?’

Plural in number. NASA did not have to go to Mars and spend billions of dollars of American taxpayers’ money to answer that question. I could have rephrased that question into the singular and asked, ‘What is the minimal condition necessary for the formation of life, and the continuance of it?’ And I could have answered with only 1 simple word: ‘Water.’ You can have all the minerals in the world, as probably Mars has, but if you don’t have water, you don’t have life. ‘Where’s the water in Mars?’ is not the question; ‘Where’s the water?’ is the question.

Alternatively I could have opened my NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) Bible to NASA and showed them Genesis 1:1-2 that speaks of when God created the universe:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a mighty wind swept over the face of the waters.

Whether in Evolution or in Intelligent Design, water was there at the beginning. I’m a Roman Catholic and I believe my NRSV. On the sixth day, God created Man, that is, He created water first. Water was right there in the very beginning. It’s not the economy, stupid; even science will tell you it’s the water that gives you life.

Even the ancient Egyptians will tell you. Why were the pyramids built dry? Why are the mummies dry? The Pharaohs didn’t want their bodies to waste away. It’s the water that gives life to the fungi and bacteria and worms of decay.

NASA, if you were looking for signs of life, you didn’t have to go out of this world.

But, NASA, if you were looking for signs of intelligent life, you would have had a problem there. Up to now, we humans have not shown much intelligence when it comes to, say, water. Because we don’t recognize it as the continuing source of our continuing life, we treat it as just another resource that we can be prodigal with.

In 2003, Unesco came up with Water for People, Water for Life (subtitle: The United Nations World Water Development Report), where the main & introductory illustration for Chapter 1, ‘The World’s Water Crisis,’ is a young black girl who is a seller of wares, who carries on her head plastic containers of all kinds. Illustrations are very, very important to me in the sense of Marshall McLuhan’s ‘the medium is the message,’ that’s why I now take my own photographs; and the silent message I get from the Unesco image is that ‘the container is the thing’ and not the substance abuse or misuse. Caveat communicator!

In that Introductory Statement I have cited, Chair of the CST William Dar also says, ‘The new 10-Year Strategic Plan and Framework to Enhance the Implementation of the Convention is our roadmap for change.’  Change we must all believe in. Of that plan, he quotes the COP (Conference of Parties) for the UNCCD as saying that ‘Operational Objective 3 on science, technology and knowledge is a central component of the strategic plan. The CST is given primary responsibility to fulfill this objective.’ The COP is the supreme governing body of the UNCCD. The UNCCD has newly adopted the RBM (results-based management) approach in its operations, so it’s interested in outcomes. According to C Buentjen of the ADB (adb.org), RBM is 40 years old and this approach came from the private sector. The UNCCD came to life 17 June 1994 (unccd.int); the news tells us at least the 44-year old UNCCD is not averse to change.

In the 10-year UNCCD plan itself (unccd.int/cop), I find that (Operational) Outcome 3.5 interests me greatly:

Effective knowledge-sharing systems, including traditional knowledge, are in place at the global, regional subregional and national levels to support policymakers and end-users, including through the identification and sharing of best practices and success stories.

Expected result: Scientific knowledge shared. I could write a book about how as matters stand today in the Internet world, not to mention the print world, in science much of the knowledge open for sharing do not because they cannot support policymakers and end-users – for the simple reason that they are written in technical language that only the scientists themselves understand. Hardly any policymaker or end-user of knowledge speaks the language that scientists and their advocates prefer in their publications and webpages, websites. Science must translate itself to Everyman’s language if it doesn’t want to remain irrelevant. Now therefore, Team CST has its job cut out for it.

As a writer, I don’t want to remain irrelevant. That is one reason why I’m glad I found my way writing science the way I now write, much of it I owe the Reader’s Digest. You can say that I dig for the information, digest it, and share with you the insight. You don’t have to agree with me, but you can see I’m passionate about it all. I certainly inform you, often make you think other things, or otherwise, or make you laugh. ‘Live well, laugh often, love much’ – I say with Bessie Anderson Stanley (1904).

Ah, but if I know William Dollente Dar by now, after I have done some information search and authored a book (Team ICRISAT Champions the Poor; see 17 December 2007, ‘My American Book,’ americanchronicle.com), and come out with many essays after that about him and Team ICRISAT for the last 16 months, since June 2007, with his quiet smarts, I can be sure Dar’s Team CST will come out champions.

By now, the way I look at it, having been Team Captain of ICRISAT for the last 8 years, William Dar is in his element: Water. Simple. ICRISAT has twice been rated Outstanding by the World Bank among 15 international research centers allied under the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research). The World Bank supports CGIAR; the 2 ICRISAT Rated O awards were for Total-System or Team performances in 2006 and 2007. You will note that ICRISAT works in the semi-arid tropics (it’s part of the name, in case you didn’t notice), and it is based in India, a big water-challenged country – all that means that its 5 mandate crops (chickpea, peanut, pearl millet, pigeonpea, sorghum) must not only survive but improve with very little water in the soil. That’s one of the reasons Team ICRISAT calls its new, improved varieties smart crops (see my ‘The Smart Revolution,’ frankahilario.blogspot.com).

William Dar is an Ilocano, from Santa Maria, Ilocos Sur, from the drylands of the Ilocos Region, northern Philippines, so he knows the value of water, or lack of it. ICRISAT has regional offices in Africa, projects also in Asia. In the drylands of Africa and Asia, of course they know the value of water, which is like that of a pearl of great price – people usually value what they lack. Those who have, do they know how to make the best use of water? A few. It is the vast majority, the multitude who must learn the many ways to use even inadequate water intelligently.

In his remarks  I have already cited, Dar mentions one of the welcome news in the science of water: The formation of the DSD (Dryland Science for Development) consortium composed of 5 international institutions of renown: the European DesertNet, ICARDA (International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas), the  JRC/IES (Joint Research Centre / Institute for Environment and Sustainability of the European Commission), the UNU-INWEH (United Nations’ University’s International Network on Water, Environment and Health), and ICRISAT. Dryland science for development? Actually, the DSD is the working team of the CST in preparing and raising funds for the 1st scientific conference on drylands to be held at the end of 2009. On Earth, not on Mars.

All that, of course, proceeds from the premise that, Dar says, ‘science has a critical role to play in the sustainability of the world we live in, and the quality of life that we enjoy.’ He qualifies that and says, ‘The critical challenge before us today is to improve the interface between science and policy so that the right steps are taken that will bring us back from the edge of the abyss.’


‘The world is watching us,’ Dar says. I hope not. I hope the world is not just watching. We have too many watchers and too few doers.

‘The world is watching us, and will judge us by the decisions and actions that we take here in Istanbul.’ That’s the problem with the world, always watching others and judging them. Just watching. When will the world stop watching and start taking action for the good?

 ‘Our planet is not ours to destroy,’ Dar says. ‘We hold it in trust for future generations. Will we live up to that trust?’

The interface of science and political will. Science will do its part, I have no doubt about that. I’m not so sure about political will. *


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