The Drop of Life This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

      In the mid-1970s, one river was forever altered by man, and it has taken billions ofdollars to help it recover. The Rhine River sculpts the border between France andGermany, and is a major waterway.

Frequently called "FatherRhine," fishermen for years depended on the river to yield supplies ofsalmon and other fish. It was also used as a means of transportation and provideddrinking water. Constant dumping of industrial waste, however, contaminated thewater and left "Father Rhine" in ruin: raw sew-age literally choked thewildlife, and an overgrowth of bacteria raided other vulnerablewaterways.

Water - it's the drop of life, a universal need, yet consumedas though it will last for eons.

Water is crucial for all creatures; theaverage person consumes 2.4 liters a day, and Americans use 14% of theirhousehold water just to wash their clothing! This vital liquid is also used forindustrial purposes: 4000m3 of water is necessary to separate one ton of nickelfrom its ore. Irrigation accounts for 70% of worldwide water consumption; 80% ofthat is used in the United States.

Rain forests supply one-quarter of ourmodern medicine, and it is predicted that rain-forest species hold a potentialcure for cancer, but 78 million acres vanish each year (an area larger thanPoland).

It's quite simple to pollute water because the Earth acts like agreat sponge, absorbing nearly everything. One gallon of gasoline can pollute750,000 gallons of drinking water! The most common pollutants are industrialwaste like the Rhine suffered. They range from minerals (copper, zinc and lead)to waste from an increasing number of housing developments. For example, 11million residents and 360 industrial companies are contributing to the pollutionof Lake Erie, while major companies discharge 9.6 millions of gallons a day ofminerals.

Oil spills, like the infamous 1989 Exxon Valdez, are extremelyharmful. When the Valdez ran aground, 11 million gallons of crude oil spilledinto the pristine waters of Alaska's Prince William Sound. It isconsidered the spill with the biggest environmental impact; an estimated 250,000birds, 2,800 otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, and 22 killer whales diedas a result. Exxon has paid more than $2 billion in clean-up costs but has yet topay court-ordered damages to thousands of Native Alaskans, commercial fishermenand small businesses devastated by the spill.

Damming is anotheravoidable way of depleting wildlife. Eight out of the ten most endangered riverswould benefit from the removal of dams or flood projects that interrupt theirnatural flow and prevent native species from returning and reproducing.Freshwater species are disappearing faster than mammals and birds. Seventeenfreshwater fish species and one in ten of America's remaining mussel species areextinct. But besides manmade wastes, organic pollutants are present as well.

In 1986, zebra mussels were accidentally introduced to lakes and streams.They filter the water for food, and cause distortions in the food chain. Theymove by attaching themselves to the hulls of boats and have spread intoseaports.

Aside from poisoning valuable drinking water, pollutants caninitiate epidemics, such as London's cholera epidemic in 1854. Citizens becameinfected with cholera when they drank water with the bacterium Vibrio in it. Thiskilled hundreds, with young children suffering the most, until Dr. John Snow usedjust a map and inductive reasoning to uncover the relationship between locationsof deaths and water pumps. He suspected sewer leakage was damaging the city'swater. Once the pumps were cut off, the death toll decreased. Snow may haveeasily identified the problem, but today more than one billion people still lackaccess to safe drinking water.

Lack of government attention has oneformer Soviet Union town suffering from the effects of sewage leaks. One womanreported that water had to be boiled and tadpole sightings in their tap waterwere common. A devastating photo of the area re-vealed a street flooding withuntreated water. Other towns in the region have been encouraged to take action,but lack of proper funds hinders progress.

Despite all this, there aresolutions. In some communities, a special pick-up labeled "Toxic WasteCollection" is available, preventing further chemicals leaks into ourwaterways. "Adopting" a body of water ensures its future. Farmers havealso been restricting their pesticide use and improving their farming techniquesto avoid erosion. Though a re-newable source, water is very expensive to clean.The U.S. spent as much as $10 million on treatment in 1996, and this cost couldrise as time passes.

The quality of the Rhine has never been better asincreasing numbers of fish return. Tests show that there are the same number ofspecies as there were 100 years ago, and oxygen levels have increased too. Today,24-hour security has boosted the chance of complete recovery and lowered thepossibility of sewage or toxic leakage. Like everything else, this seeminglybountiful liquid will not be around forever. Let's help make it last.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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Lily">This teenager is a 'regular' and has contributed a lot of work, comments and/or forum posts, and has received many votes and high ratings over a long period of time. said...
Jan. 10 at 5:23 am
i love this so much!
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