Looking for Uncontaminated Water
By Bartomeu Melià, S.J.
An aerial view of the hydroelectric plant; the Guarani worry about bad waters. Photo courtesy of Oscar Thomas.
It is not only the earth that is filled with impurities. So is the water. Lifeless waters extend throughout the earth, and not only on its surface. Like cholesterol-clogged arteries, contaminated waters also circulate with difficulty deep inside the earth—under the world’s skin.
The search for water will be the quest of many—indeed all— in this 21st century. Where can this clear and crystalline resource be found, these waters of life in the desert, this optimistic and powerful liquid that sings in the creeks and roars in the waterfalls, shining with the brilliance of a diamond hidden in the bowels of the earth?
THE MYTHIC BEGINNINGS
The Guarani, anchored in the future for centuries, believed water to be their place of origin, the center of their earth. We are reminded of the mythic account of the Mbyá, as told by León Cadogan in his book Ywyra ñe’ery: fluye del árbol la palabra (Asunción, CEADUC, 1971, pps. 57-58).
Everything happened in the place
where Our Grandmother lived,
in the Authentic Water.
This happened in our land in
years gone by.
This happened before our land
(Because today's earth is merely
a semblance of that earth.)
And Our Grandmother lived in
the future center of the earth.
She held the staff of authority in
her hand as
in our future earth she lived.
She had a son, but she had neither
a father nor a mother.
She gave birth to herself.
Thus, the heart of the earth is water, Y Ete, the authentic water, the true and real water. Water is the heart of the earth; it is where life began. Earth’s life is water. Today, as it happens, this Guarani prophecy has turned into a subject of more prosaic plans, but equally vital for the future, not only for the countries of Mercosur, but of the entire world.
FROM MYTHOLOGY TO A TECHNICAL REPORT
The Guarani territory is home to what is considered the largest aquifer on the planet. The Paraguayan public is perhaps unaware of this fact, but specialists have been well aware of it since the 1970s, and those who engage in geopolitics have probably been negotiating this issue for quite a while. I myself found out about the aquifer quite late and as strange as it may seem, it was through the Guarani of Brazil, who are worried about what is happening to their water and if it will meet with the same sad fate as their land.
So I quote here from a technical report: “The Guarani aquifer is certainly one of the largest reserves of subterranean fresh water in the world with an accumulated volume of 45,000 km3.”
The interesting thing about this enormous wealth is that it corresponds almost exactly to the geographical and ecological limits occupied by the Guarani people prehistorically. It is really just that the water reserve be known as the Guarani aquifer. Cutting across borders, just as the original Guarani territory did, it occupies some 325,000 square miles in Brazil, 87,000 square miles in Argentina, 28,000 square miles in Paraguay and 22,400 in Uruguay. That is, the aquifer is an enormous body whose veins branch out for 463,322,590 square miles. And the waters are so pure that one can drink them untreated because of a natural process of bio-chemical filtration and self-cleaning in the subsoil.
My dear readers, many of you will have noticed that I am quoting a technical report I received from my Guarani friends, authored by the expert Aldo da C. Rebouças, who has written many papers on the subject.
The search for this pure water, this Y Marane’ÿ, truly fills us with admiration, but it also leaves us apprehensive. Who will take ownership of this Genuine Water, this Y Ete from the place of Our Grandmother, which is to say, Mother Water?
The conquerors were always looking for the latest El Dorado wherever they went, if not just over the horizon, then right under their feet. The curious thing is that the discovery of the great aquifer was something of a disappointment; they were looking for oil and only found water. And now the most valuable liquid of the future is that simple water, pure water.
Bad waters are what worry the Guarani nowadays. If the land has already been destroyed, isn’t the water next? The risks involving the improper use of subterranean waters are on the horizon. More or less deep wells are already being dug without adequate technology, with the goal of immediate exploitation, exclusive and self-interested use that sucks up enormous quantities of this precious water, turns it into soft drinks and beer and sells it on the market. And the pollution of the upper aquifer, already quite affected by this extraction, could easily contaminate the deeper levels.
The treatment of the waters of the Guarani aquifer has been relatively good until now, but for how long? Speculators and businessmen can set up a system of water trafficking—with its parallel to drug trafficking—that would mean death to the life that comes from the Genuine Water, the Y Ete of the Guarani people.
The Guarani aquifer is a true bank of water of countless value that cannot be wasted nor left in the hands of unscrupulous agents. It is a deposit of extremely high value that should be protected and ethically administered.
“The accumulation of urban and/or industrial residues without adequate technology, as well as the uncontrolled and increasing use of modern chemical components in agriculture, are potential sources of contamination of the subterranean waters. It must be remembered that pollution reaching the ground level or superficial waters can reach deep aquifers or can be confined, depending on the degree to which deep wells continue to be built, operated or abandoned without adequate technology,” warned Brazilian groundwater expert Aldo da C. Rebouças.
The ethical and political implications of this situation cannot be overlooked. Water is no longer a free good that anyone can use arbitrarily; it is a natural resource with social and economic value—and the groundwater even more so than the surface water supply.
Looking for a tierra sin mal—a land without evil—the Guarani found this Y Marane’ÿ, an unexplored, deep, transparent good that bestows life, clarity and goodness, always and whenever it continues to being y sakä (transparent water), and satï (clear water), and porä (good water), and ete (true and genuine water).
This place of flowing water is rightfully known as the Guarani Aquifer. Its brilliant and appropriate name should not be stained with the evils of capitalist contamination and self-interest.
Bartomeu Melià, S.J., is a Jesuit historian, anthropologist and linguist who focuses on the Guarani people. His work involves the study and the protection of the Guarani language, as well as advocacy for its use.