We Are Water

Traditionally weave treated water as if the supply were endless, but the planetas running out. Conservation is critical. Photo: Jill Heinerth

Text and Photography by Jill Heinerth

The bright suns attached to the Betacam broadcast camera snapped to life and the news showas producer exchanged a nod with the cameraman. A local translator deciphered the meteoric Spanish into broken English and awaited my response. I had just climbed 6,000 feet( 1800 m) out of a mountain canyon and emerged in a rustic Mexican settlement nestled in the Sierra Madres Mountains. One month in the valley resurgence, diving on an expedition with Dr. Bill Stone had transformed me from a curious cave diver into an enthusiastic explorer. I was eager to regale the news crew with narratives of hazardous mudslides and unexpected siphons, of defeating harsh climate and of uplifting discovery. Interviews with Dr. Noel Sloan attested to the physical challenges facing diving deep in Huautla. Bill elucidated on the emerging technology of diving. It was my turn to share my perspectives with the world about uncovering new passages inside the earth.

aWhat stimulates you think a woman can cave dive? a he asked. aWhy would a woman take such risks? Why do you do it? a

For a moment, I felt trivialized. I was, in the produceras eyes, demoted from explorer to thrill seeker. Worse perhaps, I was a risk taker, a silly girl imperiling others. There was no sum of climbing rope that could bridge the newsmanas gender gap. It may have been the most perilous gulf I had to cross during my early expedition career. I have crossed that same gulf many times since, and Iave seemed back on that 1995 odyssey many times to consider my motivations. What is it that constructs me want to dive? What is it that drives me to continue?

Ironically, during that 1995 U.S. Deep Caving Team Project I had an epiphany, which became the impetus that directed my purpose for diving thereafter. We were exploring a region that would turn out to boast the known worldas deepest cave. Imagine a mountain range filled with sink holes that carry rain water deep into the earth. Cascading through vertical fissures and underground lakes, cavers plummet into the planet on miles of horizontal rope, reaching hidden the organizations of water that require the technical expertise of cave divers. From the resurgence in the mountain valley, itas the reverse: follow canyon streams that penetrate deep underwater caves to reach dry openings that offer keyhole passageways to the mountaintop above. Itas a caveras dreamland, and yet for the indigenous people of the region it is a nightmarish landscape that sucks up their precious water. Each household dedicates a person to the full period occupation of fetching and carrying water for miles. A small child stress with two plastic pails lashed on a shouldered branch, crucified daily to the tortures of weight that distorts their posture to a misshapen hunch.

It was there, in the beautiful, mysterious caves of Huautla, that I detected my true motivatings in diving. I wanted to know where the drinking water came from and where it went. I wanted to understand why nobody told the locals that having their toilet upstream from their neighboras kitchen was a bad notion. I wanted to comprehend how Americans could wastefully dispose clean water from a operating tap while we mindlessly satiated our senses brushing our teeth. I wanted to follow wateras journey where ever it would lead me: from cave to spring, river to estuary, and mangrove to coral reef.

For the first time in history, fresh water has become a finite resource. Many experts agree that, without significant changes in water policy, wars of the 21 st century will be fought , not over oil, but for control of clean water. I live on top of the most abundant aquifer on the planet, yet many of my neighbours scarcely understand where their water comes from or how they might be unintentionally polluting that scarce resource. Ask a child where their water comes from and many will tell you, aThe tap.a Somehow we have lost the real connection to the water that flows underground between the grains of sand or through vast cave passageways that I call my workplace.

A healthy reef relies on clean water. Nitrates and phosphates in run-off cause detrimental algae blooms. Photo: Jill Heinerth

Leading a very fortunate life fitted with great escapades around the world, I decided it was important to set the pieces together for people and help them understand that all we have wrought upon the surface of our land will be returned to us to drink.

We look for life in space, sending probes, rovers and robots searching for water, yet we have taken our own water for awarded. Earth is a water planet, glistening a unique blue in the vastness of space. Yet less than three percent of the water on this planet is fresh and most of that is locked away in ice. Less than one percent of the water supply can be used for drinking. There is nothing more precious than potable fresh water and nothing is shrinking faster as we overpopulate this big blue orb.

Traveling on expeditions around the globe, I find common problems and ingenious solutions, yet for some reason the lessons learned are not carrying forward to the global community. Diving in Tank Cave in Australiaas Mount Gambier I can see the etched lines on the wall of the dry entry where the water table has receded by almost a meter. Each year the dive starts a little farther back in the cave where the water laps upon a new larger shoreline, while farmers above put up aFor Salea signs on drying farms. Snorkeling among the mangroves of the Florida Keys, I swim in a bright green algae sheen of nutrient-laden water shrouding the previous crystal visibility. Fertilizers and septic tanks enrich the bloom that washes from the land and sneaks ominously towards the precious national monument of the coral reefs. In Bonaire I watch pulverized plastics and the refuse of humanity washing ashore as cruise ships brimming with mindless merrymakers float by.

Given this reality, one could question my love for the underwater world and my hope that mankind will protect it. The truth is that I am eternal optimist. Experience the elation of feeding a stingray in the shallow waters of Grand Cayman and you will understand my passion. Be carried by the currents in the emerald seas while you satisfy a grizzle-faced Wolf Eel and you will know my love for our oceanas inhabitants. Watch a child fill a pail with drinking water while you wear dive gear worth more fund than her family can imagine, and you will know why I have to speak out.

Corporate agriculture often fails to conserve water. Below: Connecting people with the water gets the message across. Photo: Jill Heinerth

On a local level, we can all take small actions to conserve and protect water resources. North Americans use five times more water than Europeans and many multiples more than the rest of humanity. Our wasteful actions are spurred by our dysfunctional love affair with golf-course style lawns and the wasteful use of a cheap and plentiful water supply within our homes. In the United States, the average household pays just one dollar per day for access to hundreds of gallons of aon demanda water. Our unknowing contribution to pollution comes through action at home and work as well as an intellectual detachment to our water footprint. We wantonly use up bottled water without understanding that it takes five bottles worth of awater resourcesa to make one, and many more to deal with the trash.

On a regional level, we have somehow become disconnected from our food supply. We go to the grocery store, and there, neatly stacked and brightly packaged, are all the foodA choices a family could possibly want. Our customer culture of the last two decades has fostered habits that use and pollute water on a grand scale.

Globally, we have forgotten that many people are not as fortunate as we are. Millions of women spend their entire day strolling on dangerous roads to fetch water for their families. They become the victims of despair and miss out on the opportunity for education and advancement. They do whatever is necessary to tend to their children who are sick from water tainted with toxic chemicals and dangerous microbes. History continually shows us that desperation on this level leads to global conflict and unrest.

Yet even with these dire observations, I have to remain optimistic about our ability to understand these critical issues and do something about it. Weare in the eleventh hour, yet it merely takes a determined collective will and simple actions to move towards a more harmonious and sustainable future.

My goal with the We Are Water Project is to help people learn about their local watershed and promote general water literacy. I want people to understand where their water comes from, how they might be polluting it, and how they can conserve it for future generations. With knowledge comes power and I believe when people are better connected with their water resources, they will want to do something about it. Most importantly, I want to inspire people to have a love affair with water. If they swim, dive or paddle in it, theyall want to do it again. They will protect what they love and understand, and if everyone considers that both their bodies and our planet are 70 percent water, they will understand that We Are Water.

You are already an important part of the answer. Diving is a rare and arousing privilege and your presence in this athletic already separates you from the majority of the population. As you pertain narratives of swimming in a salmon operate or plunging off the Zodiac to join a school of Pacific White-Sided Dolphins, you will inspire others to experience the unique underwater world and help create the next generation of water ambassadors. Your motivating for diving will help others understand the precious nature of our underwater world.A

For more visit: A www.intotheplanet.com

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