We find ourselves at a critical juncture in history, standing on the precipice of either descending into a dark era marked by escalating poverty, hastening ecological devastation, and intensified conflict, or propelling forward into a fresh age characterized by equality, sustainability, and responsible stewardship of our planet—the sole known abode of life in the universe. I firmly believe that a positive future is not merely a distant aspiration, but an inevitable outcome. However, to address our present challenges and embark on the path toward this envisioned future, it is imperative that we forge novel, collective, and sustained endeavors.
Perhaps nothing encapsulates the dual nature of our predicament—both the looming peril and the potential salvation—more aptly than the complex issue of water.
Water is undeniably exceptional, warranting a distinct perspective in our understanding of the natural world. The intricate tale of water and the intertwined history of humanity unfold through what I refer to as the Three Ages of Water—a narrative spanning from our primal evolution to the impending crossroads between dystopia and sustainability. The First Age of Water on Earth encompasses the eons from our planet’s formation to the demise of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago. This epoch encapsulates the transition from early mammalian survivors of the cataclysmic asteroid to the eventual rise of Homo sapiens.
During these formative epochs, human communities burgeoned from a few thousand to the first scattered millions across continents, from the river valleys of Mesopotamia and Egypt to the floodplains of the Indus Valley in southern Asia, from China’s majestic river systems to the expansive landscapes of Australia, and finally, to the lush rainforests, grasslands, and savannas of the Americas. This First Age marked humanity’s shift from nomadic hunter-gatherer groups to established settlements and structured societies. It witnessed the birth of language, the inception of art, writing, religion, and intentional agriculture. It was in this era that nascent empires began to exert influence over their environment, manipulating water through rudimentary dams and aqueducts, codifying the earliest water-related laws and institutions, and even waging conflicts over water resources.
The culmination of the First Age transpired as burgeoning human populations, sprawling urban centers, depletion of local flora and fauna, rampant waterborne diseases, and mounting pressures on natural resources necessitated a recalibrated relationship with water. The solution to these multifaceted challenges lay within the realm of science, engineering, and societal progress, thereby ushering in what I refer to as the Second Age of Water.
Our current epoch is often dubbed the Anthropocene—an era where humans have emerged as the predominant force driving alterations in habitats, reshaping species’ survival prospects, rewriting genetic codes, transforming terrestrial and aquatic landscapes, and molding the very climate of our planet. Central to this narrative is the recognition that, whether for better or worse, humans wield decisive influence over not only our own destiny but also the destinies of countless other species that share our world.