Saturday, January 26, 2008

Water, water everywhere...

The other day, out of solidarity with Mark, our Fijian correspondent, I bought a bottle of Fiji water here on the island of Exuma. By my rough calculation, that means I bought about 10 to the 25th water molecules from Fiji -- 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 water molecules that have been shipped almost exactly halfway around the world. Every one of those molecules was exactly identical to every other, and, for that matter, exactly identical to every water molecule here in Exuma.

Of course, there were a few other molecules in the bottle, various minerals that in their particular combination may be unique to Fiji, but it would take better taste buds than mine to tell the difference between Fiji water and the water we buy for a dollar in gallon jugs from our local reverse-osmosis supplier.

But what a sweet pure thing the Fiji water appeared to be, in what must be the prettiest bottle of any bottled water. With each sip, I closed my eyes and imagined myself on some idyllic island in the South Pacific.

On one of his Tahitian masterpieces, Paul Gauguin famously asked "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?" The first two questions can reasonably be answered: "Water." Terrestrial life first appeared and prospered in the sea. Our bodies are about 60 percent water by weight. Fruits and vegetables are about 95 percent water. Water is the major component of all foods -- and of ourselves.

Water is short supply on this small island. We have no fresh water lakes or streams. From time immemorial Exumians got their water from shallow wells hewn from the soft limestone rock. A thin lens of fresh water floats on the top of a deeper reservoir of brackish soup. Even the fresh water is not so fresh, and quickly depleted. In the last few years the government has built a reverse osmosis plant to supply the growing population, but for drinking we still refill the gallon jugs at our local supplier.

Where are we going? Fresh water may be destined to become more valuable than oil. Only 3 percent of the water on the planet is fresh, and 99 percent of that is locked up in glaciers, ice caps, or too deep in the ground to be practically reached. I swig back my Fiji water and marvel that I can find 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 Fijian molecules on a market shelf in Exuma.