Water is a really important topic for worldbuilding, because if your people are made of mostly water the way we are, and yet you don't know where your water is coming from, your world is not going to hold together. Yes, we can set up water supplies in expected ways from our own experience and set them in the background, but there are other options, too! I was joined for this discussion by Lexie Scanlon, Reggie Lutz, and Lillian Csernica.
We started by talking about Frank Herbert's Dune, which is always a good place to start when talking about water in worldbuilding. He sets up water as an extremely scarce resource, and organizes an entire conflict of societies around it. The Fremen value water highly, and consider that water belongs to the tribe (the larger social group) so that people who die get their water reclaimed from their bodies and returned to the community reservoir. Meanwhile, the invasive people who are claiming a dominant position here make a big deal about wasting water - feeding it to gigantic palm trees, having parties where people wash their feet and then leave their towels on the wet floor, etc. It's a deliberately constructed contrast between a deep value and the purposeful denigration of that value.
Lexie talked about desert research, saying that Field Marshal Rommel in World War II described the desert as an ocean. Water becomes more precious the further you are away from it. In places where we have fresh water piped into our homes, we tend to take water for granted, but recent concerns with pollution and climate change have pointed out the scarcity of clean water in our world.
Lillian mentioned a recent patent for a system that intends to take concrete out of water in order to reclaim the water lost as waste in the process of making concrete. Another process used to extract fresh water is desalinization, which has undergone some recent technological improvements, and is used in a number of countries around the world including Australia.
I told a story from when I was living in Japan and walking to school in Kyoto. Every morning I would pass by a fancy restaurant, and out in front of this restaurant each morning I would see people dumping buckets of water into the street, until they had essentially washed the entire street that stood before the storefront. This was obviously intended to clean and purify the street so that the environment of the restaurant would be clean, but for a girl coming from California, where drought conditions are so common, it was quite shocking.
When I was a child I remember seeing a show on TV, probably from National Geographic, in which a mother somewhere in Africa was using cow urine to bathe her child. (I'm sorry that I don't have further information on the location; it was a lot of years ago). At the time my brother and I were both very surprised by this, but we learned that urine is pretty sterile in terms of not containing bacteria and being able to wash them away. In a context where fresh water is truly scarce, it makes no sense to flush the outside of the body with water that then becomes dirty and washes away into the environment; it should be saved for drinking. Thus the cow urine was an obvious, practical choice in that context. Lillian mentioned how in England, human urine was used to bleach linen, also for the purposes of water conservation, and Reggie talked about how urine was used to cure leather because of the ammonia contained in it. In space, of course, they have special machines to convert astronauts' urine back into drinkable water. Lexie remarked how Dune did this really well with its stillsuit technology. In a desert context, drowning might be an unfamiliar concept... and certainly a rare occurrence.
Here on earth there are many methods to filter water. Lillian mentioned that many impurities can be removed from water simply by filtering it through several layers of sari fabric (I think copepods in particular are removed by this method). I had seen a purification method that involved placing water in plastic or glass bottles and setting the bottles out on top of a sheet of corrugated metal, allowing the sun reflection to kill any nasties living in the water.
Here in the US, of course, we are taught not to leave water in plastic bottles because of the BPA compounds which can leak from the plastic into the water over time. Lexie told us about her experience in the military. Previously, soldiers would use iodine capsules to purify water in canteens, but now they are using reverse osmosis purifiers. In the military, it is understood that to cut off supply lines, in particular to cut off water, stops an army from functioning. "Water is the thread that attaches you to the living."
Water also has the special property that it expands and loses density when it freezes, which is why ice floats and why lakes freeze over, not under. This is a pretty important property when you consider how aquatic animals can live safely under ice.
Sea levels change over time, and they have deep effects on culture as well as biology.
Water can be used as a cutting tool in industry - and probably inspired the use of water-bending as a cutting tool in Avatar: The Last Airbender (the animated show).
Lillian observed that without fresh water, there can be no dragonflies. Scarcity of water affects the entire food web.
California relies on snowpack as a water storage method to get it through rainless summers. Water is heavy - typically the most intractably heaviest thing carried by backpackers, for example - and hard to move. It is also hard to control. Flooding is incredibly hard to handle, and can ironically lead to shortages of fresh water if there is damage to the existing pipe system. Reggie and I agreed that it would be very interesting to deal with a useful application of flooding in science fiction. Of course, there are more traditional uses for flooding...the calendar of Egypt was based on the Nile river's yearly floods, as was the system of agriculture there.
Lillian brought up the earthquake and tsunami that occurred in Japan, and the Daiichi reactor disaster. That reactor uses water to cool its rods, but has had trouble using it to contain the radiation (instead apparently they are trying to spray resin into the air!). The kinetic energy of the tsunami was enormous, enough to rival any disaster movie. Twenty thousand people lost their lives. Lack of drinkable water and hygienic facilities led to illness and death. Aftershock earthquakes there have been associated with PTSD.
Water can be used for power generation. It also has a multitude of technologies that surround it, including (but certainly not limited to) mill wheels, levees, irrigation, naval ships, and cisterns. We talked about how cities have started to use gray water runoff systems for irrigation.
Different communities have different ideas about water value and usage. Reggie said that in Mountain Pennsylvania, there is not a lot of recycling, and after packaging fish they clean up the styrofoam containers and pour ice into the sink. This led us to think about water-related habits that characters might have, such as leaving the water on while brushing one's teeth, or using low-flush toilets (or space toilets!). In Japan there was a serious problem with wasted water at a women's university because the students were continuously flushing the toilet to disguise the sounds of their visits. This problem was resolved when someone invented a gadget that would play a recorded flushing sound, and placed it in the toilet stalls.
We often use water-related language. Emotion is often connected metaphorically to water, as when emotions "flood" over us. Water also makes a good metaphor for electricity. Water appears a lot in music (Bridge Over Troubled Water). We have a lot of water-related expressions like "off the deep end," "in deep water," "in over his head," "up a creek without a paddle," "raining cats and dogs," etc. Japanese has lots of different words to describe rain falling at different intensities, and even to describe different kinds of dripping water.
Thank you to everyone who attended! I hope to see some of you at today's discussion of Gift-giving. Here is the video for those who would like to hear exactly what was said: