In 1519, while Cortez’ little army made its way from the coast toward Tenochtitlan, Emperor Moctezuma gathered his thoughts in solitude. He was aware of the frailty of civilizations because the evidence of previous but failed societies was scattered across the landscape, most notably at Teotihuacan, which is not far from his capital. No one knew in Moctezuma’s day, and no one knows for certain today, what happened to that society, but it is certain that what was once a thriving civilization of great accomplishments ceased to exist and left behind marvelous structures as testimony to its former vigor. Those monuments, even in Moctezuma’s day, were in ruins.
Other ruins are found stretching from contemporary Colorado through the deserts of the American Southwest along the Pacific Coast of Central America and south through Peru. Civilizations which rose and fell in these areas are among the most remarkable stories of efforts to survive against the vagaries of nature, mostly the weather. The primary issue here was how to manage that most precious of agricultural necessities: water. There are magnificent examples of how the struggle unfolded including archaeological sites which display dams, hillside terraces, irrigation canals and ponds, and wells. In some places, the landscape is testimony to enormous effort and the application of tremendous skill. Curiously, we also find places where the canal runs uphill in places from where the water presumably was to where its builders intended to deliver it.
Everywhere we find that the struggle was confronted by irresistible forces which must have mystified the peoples of those civilizations: weather phenomena like El Nino, long and unpredictable droughts, and geological shifts in which the land was rising even while the people were building. In the end, civilizations were abandoned because despite their best efforts, they could not adapt to the changes imposed by nature. Whether or to what degree that happened to the culture of central Mexico, which built Teotihuacan, we do not know, but the fact that civilizations rise and fall is without question.
Modern civilization faces some of the same kinds of problems and may be in danger of suffering a similar fate. The world is running out of water. A report by the Director of Central Intelligence warns that by 2015 nearly half the world’s population – three billion people – will live in countries which are “water stressed,” having less than 1,700 cubic meters of water per person per year. This is especially true in Africa, Northern China, South Asia, and the Middle East. Water is being pumped from the aquifers of these places faster than it is being replenished. It takes about 1,000 tons of water to produce one ton of grain. The water table in northern China is falling at a rate of five feet per year, and in India it is falling from three to 10 feet per year.
Already 1.1 billion people have no access to safe drinking water and more than five million people die each year from waterborne diseases. This is more than all the people killed in wars. By 2025 it is projected that two-thirds of the world’s population, 2.7 billion people, will live in regions in which there is inadequate clean water to support the population. Things are getting worse, and they are getting worse quickly. Although three-quarters of our planet is covered with water, there is, to paraphrase a poem, water, water everywhere and nary a drop to drink. Ismael Serageldin, former vice president of the World Bank, offered a grim prospectus in 1995: “If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water.”
In the United States, drought has exacerbated a situation created by questionable wisdom governing the use of this precious resource. The aquifers underlying the great deserts of the American Southwest are being pumped dry to provide water to slurry coal to power plants which create electricity for cities and most notably for air conditioners in California. The Four Corners region, home to the Navajo and Hopi peoples, has been called a national sacrifice area because so much of the underground water is being depleted and the area is increasingly dependent upon weather for water. Last year, some of the Pueblos experienced crop failures because the usual supplies of agricultural water were dry.
Prospects in other parts of the world are even more desperate. Parts of Australia are going dry. Last November, the Wentworth Group issued Blueprint for a Living Nation. They warned: “Our land management practices over the past 200 years have left a landscape in which freshwater rivers are choking with sand, where topsoil is being blown to the Tasman Sea, where salt is destroying rivers and land like a cancer, and where many of the native plants and animals are heading for extinction. Our continent is falling apart.” It is no exaggeration to state that Australia is an emerging disaster.
Competition for water among nations and nation states which share rivers, and there are many of these, can only grow. In the Middle East, Kurds occupy areas of Turkey from which flow waters which Turkey has plans to develop. Because of such ambitions it is unlikely Turkey will reach any accommodation with Kurds which interferes with its long-term plans for that water. Hezbollah, the Islamic militant group, seeks to control the Hatsbani River, thus potentially denying water to Israel. Israel has stated it would consider such a development an act of war. Pakistan and India are engaged in competition over Kashmir. The part that India controls is where the Indus River flows. Indus water feeds power plants and the largest irrigated land area in the world in Pakistan, and India and Pakistan are nuclear powers.
Water is becoming a critical issue on the Arabian Peninsula. The aquifers there are being drained and even with the money from oil it is projected that desalination plants will not keep up with the needs. Today, a quart of potable water costs more in Saudi Arabia that a quart of oil.
There are other ecological issues which are being pushed from the front pages to make way for what should be issues of lesser importance. The fish are disappearing from the oceans, the forests of the world are shrinking, greenhouse gasses are believed by the vast majority of the scientific community to be responsible for climate changes, and significant political communities in the developed world believe, or at least profess, that ecological concerns are Chicken Little fantasies. Given this reality, it is possible that modern civilization could go the way of the Dodo bird without much of a fight because the anti-environmentalists seem determined to live in denial until it is too late to act.
John C. Mohawk Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an author and professor in the Center for the Americas at the State University of New York at Buffalo.