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Global Water Issues Spotlighted in New York Museum Exhibit

Water: it's one substance all living things must have in order to survive and thrive. But given its constant presence in human life — for drinking, for farming and manufacturing, for hygiene and even for pleasure — it's easy to forget that water is a finite and, for many, an increasingly scarce or polluted resource. Water is now the focus of a major new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. VOA's Adam Phillips reports.

As American Museum of Natural History president Ellen Futter stepped through the curtain of rippling fog-like vapor that serves as the dramatic entrance to its new Water: H20 = Life exhibit, she explained that the experience was designed to be entertaining as well as relevant to visitors.

"The drought in the southeast of this country, the fires out west and the fact that one point one billion people across the globe lack access to safe drinking water, makes this show vital and timely," Futter said.

Museum curators want to offer visitors a comprehensive look at this precious commodity that includes its environmental, cultural, scientific, agricultural and political dimensions. "The message throughout," said Futter, "is that it's a finite resource, and it's terribly crucial and urgent that it be addressed."

The exhibition itself, which winds its way like a river through a series of rooms, begins with a huge Earth-like sphere that's lit by projected graphics showing water distribution around the planet and other scientific facts, accompanied by narration.

The briefest glance at this model reminds the visitor that ours is a blue planet, two-thirds covered in water. But almost all of that water is ocean water that cannot be used for drinking, manufacture or agriculture, by humans or by the overwhelming proportion of the world's other animals that rely on fresh water to live.

To demonstrate the scarcity of fresh water, Melanie Stiassny, the museum's curator of fish science and water ecosystems offered an analogy. "Say you have a bathtub," Stiassny said. "If the water in that bathtub is all the water in our planet, about a teaspoonful of that water is what is actually available for our species to sustainably use to maintain ourselves, to maintain industry, growth, agriculture and everything else. But it's also in that teaspoon that lives all the rich, rich wealth of life we find in our fresh water on our planet."

One portion of the exhibit shows a few of the ingenious ways animals and plants have adapted to the water in their environments. The Nubian Desert beetle, for example, gets all its water by climbing to the top of a dune at dawn, and arranging its body in a way that traps droplets of fog. Eleanor Sterling, director of the Museum's Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, cited another remarkable example of adaptation, the kangaroo rat:

"It's an organism found in the southwestern United States that doesn't drink water," Sterling said. "It has specializations in its body to extract water from the food that it eats and it recycles that water through its system. Those kinds of adaptations to very dry environments are unbelievable."

Such adaptations usually take thousands of generations to evolve. But human-induced global climate change can alter an environment in mere decades, rendering many natural adaptations ineffective.

Polar bears, for example, have evolved magnificent ways to live in a world of frozen water. They have also adapted to seasonal changes in the condition of the ice. When global warming causes the bears' ancient habitat to melt, the species' very survival is threatened. "So we're trying to raise awareness about that impact, " Sterling added, "and projections are that that impact will increase."

Pollution is another major theme at the Water: H2O=Life show, especially the contamination of the vast, natural underground reservoirs called aquifers.

Many Americans visualize aquifers as underground puddles or lakes. But visitors learn that aquifers are actually beds or layers of earth, gravel, or porous stone that hold fresh water, which can be pumped to the surface for drinking, irrigation and other uses. Aquifer and groundwater pollution is a growing trend in rapidly urbanizing developing nations such as India and China.

Tuan Chiong Chew, director of the Singapore Science Centre, which collaborated on the exhibit, said, "It is a tremendous advantage being able to share knowledge about how we can prevent groundwater from being contaminated, how we can conserve, even recycle groundwater, and how we can strategically locate industries so that the damage to the water supply and also the environment is kept to a minimum."

Singapore itself offers a model for prudent water policy. This urbanized island nation of about 400 square kilometers used to import its water, but is now water self-sufficient, thanks to an aggressive rain capture strategy, urban waste water recycling, and water conservation and education programs.

Of course, individual governments will adopt different methods to protect and conserve their fresh water resources. Curators at the American Museum of Natural History hope their new Water: H20=Life exhibit will demonstrate the urgent need for people everywhere to conserve this limited, life-giving resource.