- This article focuses on water as it is experienced in everyday life. See water (molecule) for information on the chemical and physical properties of pure water (H2O) (Hydrogen oxide).
Water is an abundant substance on Earth. It exists in many places and forms: mostly in the oceans and polar ice caps, but also as clouds, rain water, rivers or freshwaters, and sea ice. On the planet, water is continuously moving through the cycle involving evaporation, precipitation, and runoff to the sea.
All known forms of life need water. Humans consume "drinking water", water with qualities compatible with the human body. This natural resource has become scarce with the growing world population, and its availability is a major social and economic concern.
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A surprising substance
Water takes many different shapes on earth: water vapor and clouds in the sky, waves and icebergs in the sea, glaciers in the mountain, aquifers in the ground, to name but a few. Through evaporation, precipitation and runoff, water is continuously flowing from one form to another, in what is called the water cycle.
Because of the importance of precipitation to agriculture, and to mankind in general, we give different names to its various forms: while rain is common in most countries, other phenomena are quite surprising when seen for the first time: hail, snow, fog or dew for example. When appropriately lit, water drops in the air can refract the beautiful colours of a rainbow.
Similarly, water runoffs have played major roles in our history: rivers and irrigation brought the water needed for agriculture. Rivers and the seas offered opportunity for travel and commerce. Through erosion, runoffs played a major part in shaping our environment providing river valleys and deltas which provide rich soil and level ground for the establishment of population centers.
Water also infiltrates the ground and goes into aquifers. This groundwater later flows back to the surface in springs, or more spectacularly in hot springs and geysers. Groundwater is also extracted artificially in wells.
Because water can contain many different substances, it can taste or smell very differently. In fact, we have developed our senses to be able to evaluate the drinkability of water: we avoid the salty seas and the putrid swamps, and we like the fresh pure water of a mountain spring.
Important properties for living organisms
Water has many unusual properties that are critical for life: it is a good solvent and has high surface tension. Fresh water has its greatest density at 4°C: it becomes less dense as it freezes or heats up. As a stable, polar molecule prevalent in the atmosphere, it plays an important atmospheric role as an absorber of infrared radiation, crucial in the atmospheric greenhouse effect. Water also has an unusually high specific heat, which plays many roles in regulating global climate.
Some substances, however, do not mix well with water, including oils and other hydrophobic substances. Cell membranes, composed of lipids and proteins, take advantage of this property to carefully control interactions between their contents and external chemicals. This is facilitated somewhat by the surface tension of water.
Water drops are stable due to the high surface tension of water. This can be seen when small quantities of water are put onto a nonsoluble surface such as glass: the water stays together as drops. This property plays a key role in plant transpiration.
A simple but environmentally important and unique property of water is that its common solid form, ice, floats on the liquid. This solid phase is less dense than liquid water, due to the geometry of the strong hydrogen bonds which are formed only at lower temperatures. For almost all other substances and for all other 11 uncommon phases of water ice except ice-XI, the solid form is more dense than the liquid form. Fresh water is most dense at 4°C, and will sink by convection as it cools to that temperature, and if it becomes colder it will rise instead. This reversal will cause deep water to remain warmer than shallower freezing water, so that ice in a body of water will form first at the surface and progress downward, while the majority of the water underneath will hold a constant 4°C. This effectively insulates a lake floor from the cold.
Life on earth has evolved with and fine tuned itself to the important features of water. The existence of abundant liquid, vapor and solid forms of water on Earth has no doubt been an important factor in the abundant colonization of Earth's various environments by life-forms adapted to those varying and often extreme conditions.
Importance of astronomical position
The coexistence of the solid, liquid, and gaseous phases of water on Earth is perhaps vital to the origin and evolution of life on Earth as we know it. However, if the Earth's location in the solar system was marginally closer or further from the Sun, the conditions which allow the three forms to be present simultaneously would have been more unlikely.
Earth's mass allows gravity to hold an atmosphere. Water vapor and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere provides a greenhouse effect which helps maintain a relatively steady surface temperature. If Earth were less massive, a thinner atmosphere would cause temperature extremes preventing the accumulation of water except in polar ice caps (as on Mars). According to the solar nebula model of the solar system's formation, Earth's mass may be largely due to its distance from the Sun.
The distance between Earth and the Sun and the combination of solar radiation received and the greenhouse effect of an atmosphere ensures that its surface is neither too cold nor too hot for liquid water. If Earth were more distant, most water would be frozen. If Earth was nearer to the Sun, its higher surface temperature would limit the formation of ice caps, or cause water to exist only as vapor. In the former case, the low albedo of oceans would cause Earth to absorb more solar energy. In the second a runaway greenhouse effect and inhospitable conditions similar to Venus would result.
It has been proposed that life itself may maintain the conditions that have allowed its continued existence. The surface temperature of Earth has been relatively constant through geologic time despite varying solar flux, indicating that a dynamic process governs Earth's temperature via a combination of greenhouse gases and surface or atmospheric albedo. See Gaia hypothesis.
Water in everyday life
All known forms of life depend on water. Water is a vital part of many metabolic processes within the body. Significant quantities of water are used during the digestion of food. (Note however that some bacteria and plant seeds can enter a cryptobiotic state for an indefinite period when dehydrated, and come back to life when returned to a wet environment)
About seventy two percent of the fat free mass of the human body is made of water. To function properly the body requires between one and seven litres/quarts of water per day to avoid dehydration, the precise amount depending on the level of activity, temperature, humidity, and other factors. It is not clear how much water intake is needed by healthy people. Water is lost from the body in urine and faeces, through sweating, and by exhalation of water vapor in the breath.
Humans require water that does not contain too much salt or other impurities. Common impurities include chemicals or harmful bacteria. Some solutes are acceptable and even desirable for perceived taste enhancement. Water that is suitable for drinking is termed potable water.
Because of the growth of world population and other factors, the availability of drinking water per person is shrinking. This issue can be solved through more production, better distribution, or through less waste.
A rare resource
Water is a strategic resource for many countries. Many battles and wars, such as the Six-Day War in the Middle East, have been fought to gain access to it. Experts predict more trouble ahead because of the world's growing population, increasing contamination through pollution and global warming.
UNESCO's World Water Development Report (WWDR, 2003) from its World Water Assessment Program indicates that, in the next 20 years, the quantity of water available to everyone is predicted to decrease by 30%. 40% of the world's inhabitants currently have insufficient fresh water for minimal hygiene. More than 2.2 million people died in 2000 from diseases related to the consumption of contaminated water or drought. In 2004, the UK charity WaterAid reported that a child dies every 15 seconds due to easily preventable water-related diseases.
Water for everyone
There are three ways to improve the availability of drinking water: produce it more, distribute it better to the needy, and waste it less.
Drinking water is often collected at spring or extracted from artificial borings in the ground, or wells. Building more wells in adequate places is thus a possible way to produce more water. Other water sources are the rain or the seas. This water however is not adequate for human consumption, and water purification is needed. Popular methods for purifying water are filtering, boiling and distillation. More advanced techniques exist, such as reverse osmosis.
The distribution of drinking water is done through municipal water systems or as bottled water. Governments in many countries have programs to distribute water to the needy at no charge. Others argue that the market mechanism and free enterprise are best to manage this rare resource, and to finance the boring of wells or the construction of dams and reservoirs.
Reducing waste, i.e. using drinking water only for human consumption, is another option. In some cities, such as Hong Kong, sea water is extensively used for flushing toilets citywide in order to conserve fresh water resources. Polluting water may be the biggest single misuse of water; to the extent that a pollutant limits other uses of the water, it becomes a waste of the resource, regardless of benefits to the polluter.
Water in human culture
Water is considered a purifier in most religions, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Sikhism. For instance, baptism in Christian churches is done with water. As well, a ritual bath in pure water is done for the dead in many religions including Judaism and Islam. And in Islam, the daily Salah can only be done after Ablution (Wodoo) that is washing parts of the body in clean water. In Shinto, water is used in almost all rituals to cleanse a person or an area.
Water is often given spiritual powers. In Celtic mythology, Sulis is the local goddess of thermal springs; in Hinduism, the Ganga is also personified as a goddess. Alternatively, gods can be patrons of particular springs, river or lakes: for example in Greek and Roman mythology, Peneus was a river god, one of the three thousand Oceanids.
Empedocles, a Greek philosopher maintained that water is one of the four classical elements along with fire, earth and air, and was regarded as the ylem, or basic stuff of the universe. Water was considered cold and moist. In the theory of the four bodily humours, water was associated with phlegm. Water was also one of the Five Elements in traditional Chinese philosophy, along with earth,fire, wood, and metal.
- dihydrogen monoxide
- double distilled water
- fresh water
- heavy water
- holy water
- mineral water
- precipitation (meteorology)
- sea water
- water (molecule)
- water quality
- water resources
- water industry
- World Ocean Day
- World Water Day
- Scientific Facts on Water disinfectants A faithful summary by GreenFacts of a leading scientific consensus report on Drinking Water Disinfectants published by the International Programme on Chemical Safety of the WHO.
- World Water Forum
- World Water Assessment Program
- United Nations' World Water Development Report
- United Nations GEMS/Water Programme
- Water Structure and Behaviour
- SAHRA—Global Water Newswatch
- Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI)
- BBC: The water debate
- Tap Water Vs Bottled Water – Interesting site providing facts about tap and bottled water.
- E the Environmental Magazine piece on bottled water (Oct 2003).
- International Association for the Properties of Water and Steam