Monday, October 10, 2016


'Watermark' describes itself as a documentary on how water shapes humanity. It's written by Jennifer Baichwal who also co-directs the film with photographer Edward Burtynsky. First released in 2013, this remarkable movie will stun and amaze you and inform you and scare you and inspire you. 

The film takes us around the world, flowing from scene to scene like a river and throughout concentrates on tiny details and human-scale activity  before smoothly gliding upwards to reveal a massively large-scale vista that cannot help but take one's breath away.

We see ancient ways of conserving water (the stepwells of Rajasthan) and vertiginous terraced paddies where a young man sits as a water guard. We see 35 million people bathing in the Ganges to wash away their sins at the largest religious pilgrimage on the planet and, in California, watch miraculous solo surfers ride giant waves with grace.

Throughout the film we see and return to a gigantic dam project in China, the size of which is beyond imaging and the skills of Hollywood. They are using the most advanced hi-def cameras, for both still and moving pictures, on the ground, strapped to tripods, or fixed underneath helicopter drones or, higher still, flown in helicopters. Having had the privilege to first watch this on a desktop and then, round at my friend's house, watch it again on a massive screen, the detail and fidelity are stunning.

We also see drought in the dried-up delta of the Colorado river in Mexico, we see leather factories, damaging humans and polluting rivers with harsh chemicals to produce goods for export to the West. We realise the sheer amount of water it takes to grow crops on a landscape scale in Texas, depleting an ancient subterranean aquifer, and learn the history of the aqueduct that brought water to the Los Angles basin - and the deleterious effects that had. The film tells us that agriculture represents - by far - the largest human activity upon the planet. Approximately seventy percent of all fresh water under our control is dedicated to this activity.

Perhaps most important of all, the film takes us on a journey to Greenland where a team from Denmark complete their mission to document ancient climates by extracting ice cores from the pristine polar Arctic. For much of our planets history there have been long ice ages interspersed with (relatively) brief interregnums when the planet's atmosphere heats up. The one we are in has lasted 11 million years and encompasses the entire history of human on earth. Now, for the first time, we are not just watching but adding to the warming. The historic record shows that it takes very little to make the climate flip into another mode - and it happens fast.

Two of the scientists talk to camera. The woman tells us that all the water we have on the earth came from space, from icy comet crashing into the plant over billions of years and being captured by our gravitational field. The man tells us:
"We can't live if we're not in water because no two cells can divide without being in water. We spend the first nine moths of our lives in our mother's womb inside ... a reconstruction of the ocean where all life has to take place. Even inside plants you can't have a cell division without it happening in water. So water is everywhere. If that water link would ever break allowing a cell to rupture and dry out, life would end . So I think it's a fascinating thought to think that you and I can only sit here and have this conversation because we both represent an unbroken link of divided cells in water at all times in the last three billion years."
My other favourite quote comes from a man, in a boat in a lake, who tells a that each of the Canadian native tribes like the Haida and the others would have a mountain creek or river that was there's to fish and talks of the cycle of water up the heavens. shed on the mountains, down back to the ocean through the rivers.
"In that process of the cycle, we fit in...whatever falls from the sky lands here and if I drink it and you drank the same water for a month or so, we'd be 70% the same water. We won't be the same. We'd be the same water...We're all water."

Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky. has spent his life photographing landscapes damaged by man. He says of his work on this film:
"I wanted to understand water: what it is, and what it leaves behind when we're gone. I wanted to understand our use and misuse of it. I wanted to trace the evidence of global thirst and threatened sources. Water is part of a pattern I've watched unfold throughout my career. I document landscapes that, whether you think of them as beautiful or monstrous, or as some strange combination of the two, are clearly not vistas of an inexhaustible, sustainable world."
(Walrus, October 2013)
His extensive website has much video footage and many intervuews worth studying. I like this quote about what lies behind a lifetime behind the lend:
'Nature transformed through industry is a predominant theme in my work. I set course to intersect with a contemporary view of the great ages of man; from stone, to minerals, oil, transportation, silicon, and so on. To make these ideas visible I search for subjects that are rich in detail and scale yet open in their meaning. Recycling yards, mine tailings, quarries and refineries are all places that are outside of our normal experience, yet we partake of their output on a daily basis.These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire - a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times.'
This wonderful and important film owes a debt I am sure the filmmakers would acknowledge, to the style and approach of Godfrey Reggio in the remarkable 'Koyaanisqatsi' trilogy, featuring music by Phillip Glass. It was shot by Ron Fricke who went on to make his own films including 'Baraka' [See Previous Post: Film: Terrence Mallick/Godfrey Reggio]



All Earth's water, liquid fresh water, and water in lakes and rivers

Spheres showing:

(1) All water (sphere over western U.S., 860 miles in diameter)
(2) Fresh liquid water in the ground, lakes, swamps, and rivers (sphere over Kentucky, 169.5 miles in diameter), and 
(3) Fresh-water lakes and rivers (sphere over Georgia, 34.9 miles in diameter).

Credit: Howard Perlman, USGS; globe illustration by Jack Cook, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (©); Adam Nieman.


An interview published in the New Scientist' [23rd April 2016]

Arjen Hoekstra came up with the concept of the  'water footprint' in order to measure the total volume of fresh water used  in the making of products such as food, clothing and energy. There's a great site which explains it all:

He tells us that our home consumption of water is only 1 or 2% of our personal water footprint. Most of the water we do use at home is recycled and doesn't count towards our footprint. The vast majority is in the products we consume, especially food. All food has a big water footprint. Grains require 1000 litres per kilogram. Beef on average requires 15,000 litres per kilogram. Hoekstra says:

"Really we need to go to a world where eating less meat is seen as a logical way to reduce the pressure on the environment. This is really the elephant in the room. Nobody's talking about it."
Staving off a global water crisis requires a formidable rethink about how to value it 
Sally Adee [New Scientist 13th August 2016]

'The value of water is incalculable. All humans are reliably dead after a week without it, which is why the UN in 2010 declared access to clean water a universal human right.'

We need to think about water as renewable resource. We need, says Adee,  to 'consider whether it's possible to contain an area's water inside a reusable, closed loop system, that reduces waste while making money from the stuff that water carries.'

Water purification techniques have advanced: "You can take the worst industrial waste  and turn it into incredibly high quality drinking water" says  Peter Gleick of global water think tank the Pacific Institute. "It's just a matter of economics."

'The most radical vision is a city based on a perfectly closed loop, with water flowing from one application to the next on the basis of the purity required for each. For example, your drinking water could become household sewage that irrigates agricultural fields, whose run-off then goes to industrial use or to enable fracking. After its final use, the water returns to a treatment plant. “Then you treat it all again, and return it to drinking water, and the whole thing starts again,” says Dominic Waughray [Head of Environment at the World Economic Forum]. “But now the plants can get energy and fertiliser out of the water and monetise treatment.”

"All the water in the world has been here since the dinosaurs. In fact the water you're drinking has probably been through a dinosaur."
- Ernest Blatchley at Purdue University in Indiana



Two sets of statistics give some indication of the effect of flooding worldwide.

A 2015 report by the UN, “The Human Cost of Weather Related Disasters”, revealed that, in the previous 20 years, there were 3,062 flood disasters, affecting the lives of 2.3 billion people, 56% of all the people affected by weather-related disasters in total. The death toll was 157,000. 

Increasing Frequency and Severity of Floods

The report points to an alarming trend of flood disasters affecting ever wider areas, while at the same time becoming more severe. Furthermore, flooding has taken its toll on agriculture and food supplies, exacerbating malnutrition problems in poorer areas of the world.

Floods Increasing Across the World

According to the report, floods strike in Asia and Africa more than other continents, but pose an increasing danger elsewhere. In South America, for example, 560,000 people were affected by floods on average each year between 1995 and 2004. By the following decade (2005-2014) that number had risen to 2.2 million people, nearly a four-fold increase. In the first eight months of 2015, another 820,000 people were affected by floods in the region.

This trend has continued into late 2015 where overflowing rivers forced over 100,000 from their homes in Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay.

More Lives Lost

The report also says that death tolls from flooding have risen in many parts of the world. In 2007, floods killed 3,300 people in India and Bangladesh alone. In 2010, flooding killed 2,100 people in Pakistan and another 1,900 in China, while in 2013 some 6 ,500 people died due to floods in India.

Flood Events Becoming More Severe

The nature of disastrous floods has also changed in recent years, with flash floods, acute riverine and coastal flooding increasingly frequent. In addition, urbanization has significantly increased flood run-offs.

[Source: The site is funded by Copernicus, the European system for Earth monitoring.]


This is a map compiled initially from inundation maps of 53 large floods between 2003 and 2008. Each of these floods displaced at least 100,000 people and, taken together, the floods affected 1,868 cities in  40 countries, mostly in the developing world. About 16% of these are flooded in multiple years.
'Urbanisation is increasing around the world... More than 860 million people live in flood-prone urban locations worldwide, and this population increased by about six million a year between 2000 and 2010. Our finding that low elevation locations concentrate much of the economic activity even in poor urban areas with erratic weather patterns highlights the tragedy of the recurring crisis imposed by flooding....In the aftermath of large floods, economic activity tends to return to flood-prone areas rather than relocation to higher ground.'
Source: 'Flooded Cities': Research by Adriana Kocornik-Mina, Guy Michaels, Thomas McDermott and Ferdinand Rauhc. Published in  'Centre Piece': The Magazine of The Centre for Economic Performance. Winter 2015'16.


Marcia Barbosa is a Brazilian physicist who has devoted her working life to studying water and its 72  anomalies - physical and chemical properties that are very different from other materials - as she explains in this unusual TED presentation at CERN. It seems that the weirdness of water could help solve our water supply problem by using a mesh of nanontubes to remove salt and pollutants in processes that use less energy than existing plants.

Another interesting physicist is Gerald Pollack at the University of Washington whose book is entitled 'The Fourth Phase of Water: Beyond Solid, Liquid, and Vapor'. His TED talk can be viewed here

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