An adequate supply of water is a fundamental need of any society. Everyone requires water to drink; but also for cleaning, washing and cooking and, if a society is to flourish and expand, water is also needed for irrigation and industry. A supply of water is also desirable for recreational uses, such as filling up swimming pools and watering gardens. Consider the following statistics: you need at least 3 litres of water to produce a can of vegetables, 100 litres to produce one kilogram of pears, 4,500 litres to produce one tonne of cement, 4.3 tonnes of water to manufacture one of steel, 50 tonnes to manufacture one tonne of leather and no less than 2,700 tonnes to make a tonne of worsted suiting.
Even more importantly, the average human being -of which there are now more than 5 billion on the planet- needs to drink a litre or so of water each day in order to stay alive. That is, if he or she is adequately fed. The water requirements of those who are on starvation diets are dramatically higher, because solid food, of which they are deprived, itself consists mainly of water.
Water as the one essential requirement of all forms of food production, is the key global resource. No water, no food. Water is thus a limiting factor in human development and water shortages are heavily implicated in humanity’s present bad condition.
It will be useful to reflect on the relevant Qur’anic verses concerning this subject. Allah who created everything in the universe and beyond reminds us that water is the source of organic vigour:
‘Do not the unbelievers see that the heavens and the earth were joined together before we clove them asunder and of water fashioned every living thing? Will they not then believe?’ (Qur’an, 21:30)
The phenomenon of life has to be known before this verse can be understood. We know that the basic unit of life is the molecule known as DNA. If the vitality of an organism consisted in this molecule alone and if this molecule had developed from the molecules of water, the verse would have read: ‘We created all living things from water.’ Vitality on the other hand, is the construction of a new and identical molecule using organic chemicals from the original.
There is a subtle difference between life and vitality. Life is a structural characteristic, while vitality is a function of that characteristic. Let us now return to the verse. The word occurring in the verse is ‘the living’, which corresponds to vitality. The meaning of the verse can be understood to be this: ‘We have brought forth all living things from water’. Allah is the best of knowers. Vitality has arisen from, and has gained power from, water. The verse does not say ‘created’ (khalaqna); but ‘empowered’ (waja’al-na). After this the verse ends with the question ‘will they not then believe’ - directed rhetorically at unbelievers, meaning ‘how can they not believe’. The question is especially relevant to the unbelievers of our time, for it is only thirty years since the indispensability of water to vitality has been recognized scientifically.
The relationship between water and vitality is a profound one. In general terms, energy is needed for the continuation of vitality. This energy is obtained by the exchange of ions. A cell is healthy if the water ions within and surrounding it are balanced; otherwise it is diseased or dead.
Water is therefore the basic element not of genesis and life, but of vitality. The verse expresses this subtlety so beautifully that it is impossible not to affirm the Qur’an as a Divine miracle. And that miracle is reemphasized by the question: ‘How can they still not believe?’