NOVA recommends the documentary, "H2O: The Molecule That Made Us," a three-hour series from WGBH Boston which dramatically reveals how water underpins every aspect of our existence.
Travel into the past to see how water may have driven our own evolution—and created civilizations. But can the Earth’s water supplies guarantee our future? (Premiered April 29, 2020)
"H2O: The Molecule that Made Us” is a production of Passion Planet for WGBH, with funding from Draper, The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, Lynn Bay Dayton and Bruce C. Dayton, Anne Ray Foundation and PBS.
H20: The Molecule That Made Us: Civilizations
PBS Airdate: April 29, 2020
KELLY MCEVERS: It’s amazing, isn’t it? Our blue planet. The only planet in the solar system that’s surface is covered in liquid water. But less than 1% of that is freshwater. Drain the salt-water away, paint a picture of our freshwater world, and these are the veins that carry the precious lifeblood we all depend on. A liquid with an almost mystical importance to humankind. And when you look at our human story through this water lens, as we have been doing for the past year, you start to see the extent to which the water molecule has shaped our destiny. And while our water history is an epic success story… its also a story of a dangerous dependence with an uncertain ending. Because now, we face a difficult question: Are we about to become victims of our own success?
I’m Kelly McEvers and I’m a radio journalist. For this story, I’ve been working with a team of filmmakers and scientists, making a podcast-style documentary, digging deep into how water has shaped and is still shaping our civilization today. But one of our crews started the story about as far away from civilization as you can get, deep inside Africa’s Congo River basin, on the trail of a new theory that might explain a critical moment in human evolution. And that theory...is all about water.
This is a bonobo—it’s a close cousin of the chimpanzee. You can only find them here in the Congo, and they have this unlikely relationship to water. This rare behavior that gives us a glimpse at how we humans might have taken our very first steps. So, if we’re gonna film this, we have to keep up with the bonobos. And I have to say this is not easy—our crew spent three weeks trying to follow these guys... and following Professor Richard Wrangham. He’s our guide to this new theory of how we evolved to walk on two legs.
RICHARD WRANGHAM: And here we are. Hi mama! How are you doing?
She’s just sitting looking at us. She’s just fascinated. "What’s this guy doing wading in my pond?"
You know it's almost 50 years of walking in the tropical forests of Africa, and frankly…the thrill never dies.
KELLY MCEVERS: Richard told us that the story of our first steps has always been a hotly debated subject. Because, up until now, no one can agree how we came to make this move on to two legs. Or in Richard’s words…bipedalism.
RICHARD WRANGHAM: Bipedalism, which is very frustrating because this is, in many ways, the defining characteristic of the hominin line. The line that led from the rainforest ape to where we are today.
KELLY MCEVERS: The generally accepted thinking is that we left the trees, and slowly started to walk out on to the savannah. But it’s never been exactly clear how that would have worked.
RICHARD WRANGHAM: In the initial phases of bipedalism… it would have been hopelessly inefficient.
KELLY MCEVERS: That is why we’re here. To see an energy efficient way that our tree-dwelling ancestors walked out onto land… some six million years ago.
RICHARD WRANGHAM: So here what we’re seeing is the bent-hip, bent-knee locomotion, like Groucho Marx. You can see her whole body swiveling as she walks.
KELLY MCEVERS: Walking like this can be very tiring on land… but it’s easy for getting food in water.
RICHARD WRANGHAM: And that’s what’s so wonderful about the wading hypothesis. In the water you’re buoyed up, so that the physical stresses are much less. This is a wonderfully ecological argument for how we became bipedal. That’s what we come from: a water-walking, wading ape.
KELLY MCEVERS: A water-walking ape might be the missing piece in the puzzle. And some people go even further, linking water origins to other human attributes… like why we sweat, or why we lost the hair that covered our bodies. Even the size of our brains!
Clearly, for Richard, water was instrumental in the evolution of our uniquely human style of walking. And it’s this kind of thinking that kept coming up with all the experts we met. A rethinking of the role of the water molecule in our human story. We might take it for granted, but all civilizations are dependent on their supply of fresh water. Always have been, always will be.
Of all those experts, for me, water economist Giulio Boccaletti really spelled out how this dependence on water has shaped the world around us. Its Giulio’s first time here.
GIULIO BOCCALETTI: It is. First time in Cairo. It’s exciting. It’s just an enormous place, with a lot of people, all of them living off one river.
KELLY MCEVERS: Giulio has spent his adult life trying to convince governments that water scarcity is humanity’s biggest threat. He famously calculated that ten years from now, we will need 40% more freshwater than we will be able to supply. Not just here in Cairo—everywhere!
GIULIO BOCCALETTI: Egypt, in many ways, is a model for the world. And its management of this one stream of water, is essential to the survival of this civilization, and it’s true now as it was true 5,000 years ago.
KELLY MCEVERS: It is hard to over-state the importance of rivers to the story of our civilization. It’s not just the fresh water that’s so important. Ancient rivers, like the Nile, had a kind of heartbeat—the pulse of the yearly flood that brought new soil to feed the crops.
Today, The Nile is dammed, but at one time it flooded so far it reached to the pyramids and beyond! The waters engulfed areas by up to forty times the size of the river! When it receded, it left behind a carpet of fertile soil that fed the world’s first great civilization.
GIULIO BOCCALETTI: Ancient Egypt was, to the ancient world, what the United States has been for the 20th century. One of the reasons it was so powerful is that just like the United States today, it was able to provide much, much more food than its population required. It seemingly didn’t have a ceiling of how much it could actually produce.
KELLY MCEVERS: And all this food production was the beginning of our addiction to the molecule. The beginning of a dangerous dependence, that made us vulnerable. Giulio is adamant, when it comes to a water crisis, we have been here before. Giulio confessed to me that he only really came to Egypt to walk down this old staircase.
GIULIO BOCCALETTI: Yeah, I’ve been waiting to see this for a long time. This is a nilometer. It’s the oldest river gauge in the world, to measure the height of the river. It’s been here for 2,500 years.
KELLY MCEVERS: The nilometer was used by Ancient Egypt’s water experts: the temple priests, the Giulios of the day.
GIULIO BOCCALETTI: It’s sort of strange to think that there was somebody like me worrying about water some four millennia ago, but that’s what this indicates.
Each year, the flood would rise up inside the staircase.
The priests would carefully monitor its height using the markings carved into the walls.
GIULIO BOCCALETTI: A good flood was, at this point, 11 or 12m and yet they were measuring the finger difference or the palm difference, or even the length of your forearm, the cubit difference.
And so, it’s an instrument of extraordinary precision, given what they were trying to do.
KELLY MCEVERS: What they were trying to do was build a predictive model. This is from ancient Egypt’s oldest surviving text. And it is all about water and harvests.
GIULIO BOCCALETTI: You can see here, you have three cubits, or three forearms. One, two, three, four, five, six…six palms. And then two fingers. So here they were recording the height of one year’s floods.
KELLY MCEVERS: By looking into the past, the priests could see into the future.
GIULIO BOCCALETTI: And that was key, because the success of this instrument as an instrument of prediction depended on having long records.
KELLY MCEVERS: Those records could predict a bad harvest, which gave the Pharaoh enough warning to distribute food before the famine hit. It might be a simple stone staircase, but the nilometer’s predictive technology was instrumental in Egypt’s rise to power.
GIULIO BOCCALETTI: This civilization lasted for three millennia; far longer than our western civilization. And I’m sure that there were times when they were convinced that they would last forever, and they didn’t.
KELLY MCEVERS: Something went wrong. A water crisis caught up with the pharaohs, and they lost control.
GIULIO BOCCALETTI: This is the last hieroglyph ever inscribed anywhere in the Egyptian world—and it’s defaced.
KELLY MCEVERS: A last gasp of a civilization that crashed and burned.
GIULIO BOCCALETTI: An entire civilization ends here. You know, this is the last sign that the Egyptians left us.
KELLY MCEVERS: The reasons for the fall of the empire are, of course, complex. But Giulio told me about some surprising new research that compares ice core data from the arctic, with the ancient Egyptian Nilometer records. And there’s a direct match between global weather events at the time, the failure of flood waters in the Nile, and the successive collapse of dynasties in ancient Egypt. It happened time and again, culminating with the fall of Cleopatra.
GIULIO BOCCALETTI: There were at least two very severe droughts at the end of the Egyptian kingdom during the last reign of Cleopatra. The droughts persisted for much longer than expected. And then there would be strife, there would be problems, and the power of the state would be severely weakened.
And that’s what happened over and over again during the course of Egyptian history, and in a way, that’s what we face today as well.
KELLY MCEVERS: We too are vulnerable to changes in the climate. This is what Giulio’s day job is all about and he wants to warn us, that water scarcity can still lead to famine, social unrest, even war. The origins of the world’s civilizations started alongside the fertile banks of four major rivers. And, like Egypt, none lasted forever. Their reigns came and went in cycles associated with great droughts or catastrophic floods.
But of the four, only one was defined by its relationship to water. China is the water kingdom! Controlling the molecule is at the heart of this entire civilization! Even the word for politics uses the symbol for water.
And, at the center of China’s mythology is a 4000-year-old story of a great flood that swamped the land for two decades. As legend has it, the people were saved from the flood by a heroic figure known as Yu the Great. And his ability to tame the yellow river made him emperor of China’s first dynasty...the Xia.
Our water journey took us to the ancient Yellow River valley to meet a man who thinks he’s proved this legend to be true. Wu Qinglong is a geoarchaeologist who has been unravelling this water mystery for the last ten years.
WU QINGLONG: We are now at Jishi Gorge. It is beautiful and splendid but there are hidden dangers as well.
KELLY MCEVERS: It’s this perilous gorge that hides Wu’s evidence of the mythical flood. The story begins at an archaeological site called Lajia.
This is China’s Pompeii. 4000-year-old skeletons, mainly children, perfectly preserved by thick layers of mud and sediment.
WU QINGLONG: It is rare to see such an archaeological site with such well-preserved and distorted skeletons.
KELLY MCEVERS: This is the first time any western cameras have filmed this amazing find. And it’s hard not to be struck by the scene of devastation. How these people died is part of Professor Wu’s mystery.
WU QINGLONG: They probably suffered from a devastating natural disaster.
KELLY MCEVERS: The state of the bodies suggests a flood has preserved them. But the excavation also shows signs of another disaster that might have trapped them first.
WU QINGLONG: The neck is broken. And the legs are in an abnormal position
KELLY MCEVERS: Inside Jishi Gorge, Wu began to piece together the gruesome chain of events. His first clue: the signature of a massive earthquake.
WU QINGLONG: This is an earthquake crack filled with the outburst flood sediment.
KELLY MCEVERS: An earthquake would explain why many of the skeletons’ bones were broken. But it did not explain how it could have caused the flood that entombed the people.
WU QINGLONG: I spent 9 years looking for it.
KELLY MCEVERS: The evidence he was looking for, was there all along. It had just been too big to see. The remains of an ancient landslide. So big, it once filled the entire gorge and dammed the river behind it. Wu worked out how, over nine months the river rose up behind the dam, six hundred feet of water, building up, until the pressure got too much... it burst.
The great flood was real.
WU QINGLONG: Compared to the greatest Yellow River flood in history, it was even 10 times larger.
KELLY MCEVERS: A cataclysmic water event that changed the course of China’s history and seeped into the psyche of an entire culture. And for Professor Wu, it was the culmination of ten years of work.
WU QINGLONG: I was very happy.
INTERPRETER: Why’s that?
WU QINGLONG: Because we addressed an important controversy in history and archaeology. Since the myth of the Great Flood proves to be real, Yu the Great and the Xia Dynasty are real as well.
KELLY MCEVERS: Turns out, China’s water obsession was born of real events. And their struggle to control rivers continued for millennia. Many of China’s rulers, were actually trained as water engineers—masterminding more and more ambitious projects to bring the molecule under control.
This 1931 flood, the greatest in living memory, inundated an area the size of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut combined, leaving 4 million people dead and 40 million homeless. And it was out of this enduring struggle to control the flood that China became masters of the molecule.
Today, the Three Gorges Dam is the monument to that water history. It is the world’s largest hydro-electric project, generating enough power to supply Beijing with all its electricity needs and stopping the floods downstream. It even has its own boatlift! But controlling all this water comes at a cost. The 400 square miles of reservoir displaced 1.2 million people and caused huge ecological damage. The loss of habitat caused a dramatic reduction in local rainfall. And the weight of water has even caused a 30-fold increase in earthquakes here.
Concerned about the environmental impact, scientists use satellite imagery to count the dams across the world and calculate how much water is held behind them. The water in the Three Gorges, for instance, can be represented by a column 1,000 feet wide, rising over 300 miles high. And that is just one dam. China has 87,000 of them! And it’s not only China.
The United States has almost just as many: 84,000 and counting. Today, two thirds of the world’s major rivers no longer have a connection to the sea, endangering fish populations, wetlands, and estuaries.
Within ten years, 93% of all river water will be choked by a dam. There is now so much water stored behind dams in the Northern Hemisphere, the weight of the water has tilted the axis of the Planet, affecting the speed of its spin!
The way we control water is changing the planet. For most of our history, anywhere without fresh water remained off-limits, to all but the smallest of settlements. But there was always another source of water—underground, tantalizingly close. Which if tapped, had the power to change the face of the planet like never before.
In ancient Mexico, that power of groundwater was connected to the gods. And today, portals to their underground water world still exist.
Here, where there is not a lake, river or stream for hundreds of miles. There are small openings in the jungle, called cenotes. Sources of water that could support whole cities. No wonder the Maya attributed a spiritual power to their mysterious underground water source.
CAMILA JABER: Can you hear that? It’s a howler monkey.
KELLY MCEVERS: Camila Jaber has her own special relationship with the Maya’s underwater world. She’s a free diver. She’s actually Mexico’s national record holder. She went down deep…
CAMILA JABER: 56 meters, no fins.
KELLY MCEVERS: on a single breath…
CAMILA JABER: Yeah.
KELLY MCEVERS: for a long time.
CAMILA JABER: It means it’s a dive of around two min, two minutes and thirty seconds, more or less. Up and down, down and up.
I grew up diving in the cenotes, so I go back very often.
For the Mayan culture, it was a portal to another world where their souls went. They were used for sacrifices asking for rain from the gods, and it was a sacred place.
KELLY MCEVERS: If you want to access this world you have to dive 200 feet down in a single breath—which is incredible. But that’s what free divers do. And if that wasn’t enough, today, Camila plans to dive into this eerie toxic cloud at the bottom of the cenote.
VINCENT: Frankly speaking, this is the most worrying thing we can encounter cave diving.
KELLY MCEVERS: Vincent is accompanying Camila as a safety diver.
VINCENT: This is visually beautiful, but it’s pretty toxic, it has exactly the same effect as carbon monoxide, so it’s not really a good thing to be swimming in for ages.
KELLY MCEVERS: Someone tell that to Camila...
VINCENT: Looks more like dancing in the water than swimming. I’m not really worried for her, as long as she is not staying very long in the hydrogen sulfide.
CAMILA JABER: Going through the layer, oh my God, this is so weird because it all goes dark. You don’t know where you are. It’s a very weird feeling because it’s just kind of a cloud.
On the way up, you’re swimming up in this light beam, and it looks like there’s something magical happening.
KELLY MCEVERS: It is not surprising the Maya worshiped these natural wells. For other civilizations it was rare to get such easy access to groundwater like this.
Here in India, this step well has 3500 steps to access the freshwater below. A long climb to get a drink of water. In this way, for most of our history, underground water was always just out of reach.
That changed in the early 1700s. Once again, water is at the center of a massive leap in the progress of human civilization. This time it is all about an invention made on the small wet island of Britain. A new machine called the ‘Newcomen Engine’. And it harnessed one of the special properties of the molecule and used steam to drive the first mechanized pump.
Originally designed to get rid of unwanted water from flooded coal mines, soon these pumps would be sucking much desired groundwater all over the world. Steam engines powered the industrial revolution. Steam transported us further and faster. And that simple, original design for a pump gave us access to groundwater that had been off limits for so long.
There is no better place to see how that has affected the landscape than here in Arizona. We headed sixty miles east of Phoenix, into the desert, to see 21st Century pumps at work on an unimaginable scale.
SANJAYAN: If you just saw this from space and you had no idea about what we do, you’d have a hard time figuring out what this was.
KELLY MCEVERS: Each one of these circles is watered by a center-pivot irrigator. It taps into underground reservoirs that seeped into the earth over tens of thousands of years… until we reached them with our really long straws.
SANJAYAN: They’re just perfect circles in the middle of nowhere, in the desert... all because we have learnt how to tap water deep underground.
KELLY MCEVERS: Sanjayan is convinced we have been building a debt here that we will soon have to re-pay. And he took us to investigate the extent of our thirst for underground water. Although it wasn’t as easy as we’d hoped. You would think filming a farming operation wouldn’t be that hard. We called over 50 farms and asked to film on their land. Not one of them said yes—especially if we were going to mention groundwater.
SANJAYAN: You couldn’t get near this stuff. It actually says, "Private Property" right here, "No Trespassing." So, we resorted to filming from the side of the road.
You had to film it with a drone and stand on the edge, and I had to look across a fence.
Don’t lose this thing.
And you think, my God, you know, we’ve gone around the world and we’ve filmed all sorts of things that are really sensitive like giant oil rigs or nuclear facilities and it wasn’t this hard. I mean, it’s a piece of farm equipment. It’s not national security, for God’s sake. It’s a piece of farm equipment and no-one wants to talk to you about it? That tells you there’s something going on.
KELLY MCEVERS: There is nothing illegal going on here. But there is an issue, with each of these pumps pulling water out of the ground at up to 3000 gallons per hour. That is much faster than rainfall replenishes it. The aquifer can only last so long.
SANJAYAN: It’s kind of amazing... look at this water just gushing out. And it’s cold because its coming from deep, deep under the earth. The last time that water was on the surface there were mammoths walking around here. That’s crazy!
It’s certainly not the most sustainable way of using water. It might not even be the most efficient way of using water, but it’s the fastest way of using water. And it’s hidden water. It’s secret water, it’s water that frankly, not a lot of people want to even talk about it.
KELLY MCEVERS: Not to us anyway. And the reason for all the secrecy? It’s a sensitivity about whose water it is and how long it’ll last. Growing Alfalfa is worth half a billion dollars per year in Arizona alone.
SANJAYAN: That’s just been mowed, so that’s the alfalfa, what’s left of it, that they’ve now baled.
KELLY MCEVERS: As long as you own the land, you don’t pay for the water underground. And, while that lasts, no one wants to limit the amount of water they can pump because it means they’ll make less money. Thousands of farms in America are pumping water in this way. But this farm introduced me to one of the most surprising parts of our water story. Sanjayan took us here to show us how far some will go, to get as close as possible to a water source.
SANJAYAN: Look at… Look at this. It’s incredible infrastructure. I mean, it’s spectacularly built. Clearly much more money, than any of the other farms we’ve driven by. I’ve never seen that kind of infrastructure just to get into a farm… with a big, big gate, and it looks like a high secure facility.
Why don’t we see if we can get to the very edge of this farm and we can just stop there and take a look 'cause they’re sure not going to let us in there.
KELLY MCEVERS: Places like this show us a new way that countries are tapping into each other’s water.
SANJAYAN: And it’s actually owned by a Saudi Arabian company and you think: why is Saudi Arabia in the middle of Arizona?
KELLY MCEVERS: So, what’s going on? When you think of the Arabian Peninsula you think of oil. But when the Saudi’s started drilling for oil back in the 1970S, they also found huge reserves of groundwater—enough to fill Lake Erie! It led to an explosion of center pivot farms, so big you could see them from space.
SANJAYAN: And they got very good at going deep down and sucking that water up at a very fast rate. In the 1990’s the Saudis were one of the leading exporters of wheat.
KELLY MCEVERS: They were actually the world’s sixth largest exporter! But that didn’t last long. By 2012, in just twenty years, 80% of their aquifer had been pumped dry. Almost overnight, they were importing as much wheat as they used to export.
SANJAYAN: They looked around the world and said, where can we grow crops where there is a steady supply of water, where people haven’t really caught onto it? And guess what? They found it right here in Arizona. And I think that’s this sort of this astonishing story.
KELLY MCEVERS: What’s really astonishing is the extent to which we are all doing this. The Saudis aren’t the only ones tapping into the water of other countries. In fact, it’s going on so much that we’re creating a new flow of water around the planet. One that is not in the form you might expect.
If you had to name the world’s second largest exporter of fruit and vegetables, after the United States, the tiny country of Holland might not be at the top of your list. But last year alone, their exports were worth 100 billion dollars.
Since Medieval times the Dutch have been THE water experts. And they’re still leading by example today. They recently committed to sustainable agriculture. And since the year 2000 many farmers have reduced their dependence on water by 90 percent. Much of their success lies inside vast arrays of climate-controlled greenhouses.
We ventured inside with water scientist Arjen Hoekstra, and we were blown away by what we saw.
ARJEN HOEKSTRA: Wow. That’s impressive. See all the seedlings. Young tomato plants. Hundreds of thousands of those seedlings are growing here, outside it is nearly freezing and here inside. It’s quite hot here actually, I must say, but its everything climate controlled to create perfect conditions for growth.
KELLY MCEVERS: When you talk to someone like Arjen, you realize he is fascinated by, actually obsessed with, our use of water and its impact around the world. He even came up with the concept of the water footprint, that measures the amount of water needed to supply our daily needs.
ARJEN HOEKSTRA: Most people, if they think about water use, they think about their shower, washing their hands or so, or cooking. But, in fact, 92% of all the water consumption in the world is related to crop production in agriculture.
KELLY MCEVERS: 92%! Just to grow the food that we need to eat. When you calculate how much water it takes to grow a tomato, it starts to add up.
ARJEN HOEKSTRA: The interesting thing about a greenhouse like this is that it is kind of a laboratory. We know the temperature, we know the light, we know exactly how much water the plant needs.
KELLY MCEVERS: And, if you count every drop, as Arjen has, you discover something quite revealing.
ARJEN HOEKSTRA: Of all the water that a plant sucks up from the earth, 99% evaporates. Only 1% is used to build the plant. But I put it back, otherwise you never know what happens.
KELLY MCEVERS: Inside this greenhouse, the evaporation is contained, and the drip irrigation reduces water footprint. Outside, with traditional farming, it is twenty times that.
ARJEN HOEKSTRA: Worldwide, the average is 200 liters of water for one kilogram of tomatoes.
KELLY MCEVERS: It takes 26 gallons of waterto grow a pound of tomatoes. So, a tomato’s water footprint includes this invisible trail of all the water that was used to make it. This trail of water, Arjen calls "virtual water." And virtual water is as powerful and important as any flowing river. You just need someone like Arjen to understand the scale of it.
ARJEN HOEKSTRA: When I see all those containers, I see water, a lot of water.
KELLY MCEVERS: If a single container ship were filled with tomatoes, and it takes 26 gallons of water to grow a pound of tomatoes, a whole ship like this, has a water footprint of over 2 billion gallons of virtual water. That means a container ship filled with green coffee beans, for example, has a trail of over 400 billion gallons of virtual water.
Each boat has a satellite tracker, and mapped from space, you really get to see the scale this new flow of ‘virtual water around’ the planet. Their paths form giant virtual rivers going through the Suez Canal there is three times more virtual water than real water is flowing over Niagara Falls.
ARJEN HOEKSTRA: Water is global resource. If you don’t have the water in a country, you can rely on water elsewhere.
KELLY MCEVERS: This is how Saudi Arabia taps aquifers in America, and causes a virtual water flow from Arizona to Jeddah.
ARJEN HOEKSTRA: Saudi Arabia, 66% of their total water use is outside the country.
KELLY MCEVERS: With Europe its 44% and the United States its 20%. In other words, this is a global dependency. This flow of virtual water is humanity’s latest innovation to harness fresh water. Our addiction to the molecule appears to have no limit. But there is a dark side to virtual water because it pushes the consequences of our thirst for water out of sight and out of mind. Like our desire for cheap jeans and t-shirts, which sucks a virtual water flow from countries far away.
ARJEN HOEKSTRA: Take the Aral Sea as an example.
KELLY MCEVERS: In Uzbekistan, once the fourth largest lake in the World! But the rivers that flowed into the Aral Sea were diverted to irrigate cotton fields.
ARJEN HOEKSTRA: The cotton is for export, to other parts of the world. And the rivers don’t end up in the sea anymore, the Aral Sea is disappearing.
KELLY MCEVERS: In just 30 years, the Aral Sea was drained to a desert by the suck of virtual water used to grow cotton.
ARJEN HOEKSTRA: It’s a huge environmental disaster, and that is directly related to that export of cotton.
KELLY MCEVERS: Sanjayan witnessed this man-made tragedy for himself.
SANJAYAN: It takes your breath away because it’s a gigantic lake unimaginably big, with ships on it that disappeared in my lifetime, in my lifetime. It is too big to almost imagine, that it is humans that have done that.
KELLY MCEVERS: For Sanjayan the Aral Sea is just one of many signs. The cracks in the system are everywhere, and you don’t have to leave America to see them, like the Colorado River. So many dams hold water in their reservoirs, and so many canals siphon it away, that now...
SANJAYAN: You end up, with this river petering out, you know, 50 miles before it reaches the sea. I could stop it with my foot. It had become such a trickle.
KELLY MCEVERS: Maybe more importantly, our ground water reserves are at a breaking point. Sanjayan took us to see the extent of our aquifer depletion. Here in Arizona so much water has been pumped from underground. That the ground has dropped and ripped apart.
SANJAYAN: Holy cow. Oh, this is unbelievable. I mean this is like a canyon opening up at my feet. Now that’s…
That’s a crack. That’s a proper crack in the earth. Even further cracks down there, be careful! This is all ready to go. Woah, barn owl! Oh, I’m so sorry!
That’s kind of amazing right because, like nature’s found a way to use this little bit of geology and there’s barn owls nesting here. That’s the white that I’m seeing here. This is ridiculous.
It definitely feels like that crack in the wall of your foundations.
KELLY MCEVERS: And it’s not just Arizona. The ground is sinking in California, New Orleans, Mexico City, Saudi Arabia, Bangkok…
SANJAYAN: It’s a sign.
KELLY MCEVERS: Shanghai…
SANJAYAN: It’s an absolute sign…
KELLY MCEVERS: Tokyo.
SANJAYAN: That you’re running out.
KELLY MCEVERS: Cracks in the desert, sinking cities just a few more of the signs that today our demands on fresh water are out-stripping supplies. It’s a global problem, one that none of us should feel immune to.
SANJAYAN: And believe me, I’m not above any of this. If we don’t take care of water in a sustainable fashion, it’ll be the first environmental tipping point that will bite humans the hardest. I’m sure of it.
You know, you go around the world looking at places in which people have found ways to reverse ecological trends and come up with things, and I think that… I mean, I still believe in human ingenuity.
KELLY MCEVERS: And that does seem to be the question. Can our ingenuity design a new water future? Like we’ve done over and over throughout history? As we saw in Holland, we can engineer ways of saving water. But high tech-solutions can only get so big.
ARJEN HOEKSTRA: You cannot start growing wheat or rice in those kinds of greenhouses because the amount we consume is so huge that it would become much too expensive.
KELLY MCEVERS: For Arjen it is about a new appreciation of the preciousness of water. And for Giulio it’s just that simple.
GIULIO BOCCALETTI: All these problems are manageable ultimately, but they certainly won’t be managed if we pretend everything can be solved through technology.
KELLY MCEVERS: It looks like we no longer take our water management seriously enough. We just don’t value it like we used to.
GIULIO BOCCALETTI: And that’s the real risk here, if we believe that, we don’t actually have to worry because somebody will take care of it, well that’s when the biggest problems arise.
KELLY MCEVERS: Just like in Ancient Egypt, today’s temple priests, the scientists, like Giulio, are warning us of a looming crisis.
GIULIO BOCCALETTI: And I am afraid nobody’s listening.
KELLY MCEVERS: If we don’t listen, our dependence on water, this molecule that made us, will be the reason for our undoing.
For me, this is a wake-up call to start thinking "beyond the tap" and find that deep connection to the molecule that is inside of us all. Because if the next chapter in our water story is going to be one we survive, our next step needs be our greatest.
Ben Lavington Martin
ORIGINAL MUSIC BY
Maria Haase Coelho
POST PRODUCTION SUPERVISOR
Lily Jane Stead
Oscar el Ruso
Kris Lavington Woods
TITLES DESIGNED BY
and Passion Pictures
Magdy El Rashidy
POST PRODUCTION FACILITY
SOUND EFFECTS EDITING
Jonny Crew, Wounded Buffalo Sound Studios
Written and Performed by Courtney Hartman
Gabriel Guerrero Rubello
Getty Images / BBC Motion Gallery
Henry Jun Wah Lee / Evosia Studios
Huntley Film Archives
National Science Foundation
Petrie Museum, University College London, UK/Bridgeman Images
Port Of Rotterdam Authority
Rob Dickinson (International Steam)
The Vegan Travellers
Wilderness Films India Ltd
SPECIAL THANKS TO
The Nature Conservancy
WITH THANKS TO
Adrian Scripps Ltd.
Aswan High Dam
Beekenkamp Plants B.V.
Egypt Ministry of Antiquities
Lajia Ruins Museum
Lans Westland B.V.
Lola Ya Bonobo
Port Of Rotterdam Authority
Stolze Agro Int’l B.V.
Three Gorges Dam
Zona Arqueologica de Coba
Shan Shan Tam
LEAD BUSINESS MANAGER
NATIONAL AUDIENCE DEVELOPMENT
LEGAL & BUSINESS AFFAIRS
Pablo Velez, Jr.
Salme M. López Sabina
Produced by WGBH Boston and Passion Planet Ltd.
©2020 WGBH Educational Foundation
All Rights Reserved
- Giulio Boccaletti, Arjen Hoekstra, Camila Jaber, Kelly McEvers, Wu Qinglong, Sanjayan, Richard Wrangham