I’ve had skeptics and gung ho pro-capitalists confront me about what waterfalls are good for.
Unfortunately for Nature, the benefits (especially health-related ones) aren’t immediately apparent.
And when you compare those subtle benefits to the potential windfall that decision-makers often face (especially in a world full of perverse financial incentives), it’s quite easy to dismiss the Nature for whatever monetary gains that await those who exploit them.
Indeed, if one person doesn’t do it, someone else will. That’s the kind of world we live in, and why it feels like civilization will eventually fall off a cliff at some point given all the perverse incentives that are out there in the name of short term gains at the expense of long term gains.
So in this article, we attempt to narrow down our focus to the importance of waterfalls.
I’ve written an article about why Julie and I visit waterfalls from a mental and physical health standpoint, which you can read about here. So regarding this aspect of waterfalls, we’ll merely summarize the benefits here (and not reinvent the wheel).
The health benefits include improved mood and mental health, exercise, good respiration, and optimization of limited time on earth.
The improved mood results from the fact that waterfalls tend to have aesthetic qualities to them. When we see something we perceive as beautiful (whether it’s seeing someone attractive, some incredible natural feature [like waterfalls!], or even an elegant solution to a difficult problem, etc.), we tend to be happier.
This is the essence of the point I’m trying to establish here.
Scientifically, there are claims that negative ions that are abundant in waterfalls somehow increase serotonin levels, which ultimately helps our mood.
The mental health aspect comes from the relaxation-tendencies we’d tend to have from the simple act of watching the motion and sound of moving water.
Indeed, many of us are drawn to the sound that waterfalls make. Sometimes, we’re also drawn to the constant motion of the water itself. Regardless of what exactly it is, waterfalls seem to have that relaxing effect, and that’s what matters as far as our mental health is concerned.
The good respiration is a fancy way of saying that natural waterfalls tend to beg in places with clean air. Therefore, your respiration system will love you for it, especially if you breathe clean air by visiting waterfalls.
The optimization of our limited time on earth is something I’ve concluded when you throw all the health benefits together, and you share them with the people you love.
Let’s face it. We’re all going to expire some day, so how do you make the most of your time on earth?
Given the health benefits I talked about earlier, it only seems natural to want to spread the love by sharing the waterfalling experiences with loved ones.
Thus, when you put it all together, we feel that waterfalling is indeed making the most out of our limited time as it’s one of the most worthwhile things you can do in life.
Waterfalls have a way of announcing or indicating the health of an ecosystem.
They accomplish this by showing themselves to human observers in whatever state they happen to be in.
If the stream going over the waterfall is in consistently healthy flow, then it quickly becomes apparent the amount of life that surrounds the immediate area.
Indeed, with nature unimpeded, you could have organisms that manage to adapt over the millions or even billions of years given the set of conditions that Nature had set for them. With enough time, the successful life forms that have adapted well would thrive and make their presence known.
We’ve certainly observed this from the amount of greenery from photosynthesizing algae (some of which might provide food for insects or other smaller life) along the cliffs. We’ve also seen trees and bush that would grow and thrive in the area further adding to the greenery.
And with the lushness would come other wildlife like birds, insects, and some mammals like rodents as well as reptiles like lizards. Of course, we’d feel more rejuvenated just by being in the presence of Nature functioning normally. It’s the way waterfalling should be experienced.
If the stream going over the waterfall was inconsistently flowing (i.e. dry most of the time except for flash floods), then the amount of life around the area would be noticeably quiet. The scenery would be more brown (often times the banks would be eroded from flash flooding), and the place would just feel more lifeless and dysfunctional.
The latter scenario more often than not would be the result of man-made activities. Whether it’s a dam robbing the stream of its normal flow, or Global Warming disrupting the rainfall distribution that once struck a balance for millenia, or pollution killing off life as the water that once sustained life would now take it given the pollutants, it’s pretty clear that waterfalls going through such extremes would definitely not be in a good state. As a result, it would indicate clear signs of a lifeless, dysfunctional ecosystem.
A healthy river system (which once again I have to reiterate that waterfalls can indicate this) tends to have lots of plant and tree life tapping into the freshwater resources on its banks. And this, in turn, has the consequence of reduced erosion as the plant life would tend to stabilize the soil.
When wildfires would occur, the lack of tree and plant cover would certainly mean further stream erosion (sometimes manifested as mudflows or landslides).
We’ve also seen what happens when this natural streamflow is disturbed by man (especially on Maui’s windward side).
For example, the diversion ditches through Hawaii’s freshwater systems deprived forests of water. As a result, only flash floods racing through the drainages would be the only time enough appreciable water would flow on the windward sides of the medium- and smaller-sized creeks.
Indeed, waterfalls that were once more abundant and reliable are now relegated to ephemeral waterfalls that barely last a day or two. In other words, along the famed Hana Highway, you could see hundreds of waterfalls during rain, or you could only see a bunch of bare walls barely a day or two after rain.
Around the world, there are plenty of other examples of dysfunctioning ecosystems due to human interference of river systems (announced by unhealthy or non-existent waterfalls). And that list seems to be growing day by day (e.g. Three Gorges Dam, the Colorado River Dams, Kárahnjúkar Dam, Itaipu Dam, etc. etc.).
So we’ve established that waterfalls announce the health of an ecosystem and what happens when man interferes with a watercourse. So why mess with it?
Well, modern life requires the use of energy and industrial scale production of food. And in order to feed into this demand for both, some manipulation of Nature must occur.
Therefore, we end up with hydroelectricity and agriculture.
We won’t go too deeply into agriculture because hydroelectricity is more directly tied into waterfalls.
Just realize that you hear lots about irrigation ditches around farms and cultivation fields ever since the advent of human civilization. Indeed, this is a practice that has been there for thousands of years and some compromises with Nature must be made in order to feed more people.
Of course, all this has the net effect of robbing water from a natural watercourse, which means some other life dependent on the watercourse would suffer from our need to thrive and cater to more people.
That’s all I’ll say about diversion for agricultural purposes, but just talking about it in this section demonstrates some of the compromises that must be made if we want to support a larger population of people at the expense of earth’s resources available to all.
So let’s go into hydroelectricity, which could very well be the bane of all freshwater systems and especially waterfalls. The rest of this article will focus on this very aspect of waterfall utilization for industrial purposes.
The basic principle behind energy generated from water is the action of water moving under the influence of gravity which then turns mechanical devices which can convert that energy into electricity.
In physics terms, water coming from higher elevations has more potential energy (stored gravitational energy) than water sitting at lower elevations (i.e. some of that stored gravitational energy got released as kinetic energy, meaning the water is moving or even accelerating).
Of course, it doesn’t have to be water that’s going from potential to kinetic energy. Roller coaster rides are another easy example to visualize. After all, why is it that they always have to pull you up a very large hill on chains before the roller coaster is left to its own devices?
The following drawings illustrate this.
So why have dams to get hydroelectricity when all you need is the motion of water, which is supplied by gravity?
Hydroelectricity is often associated with dams because it’s the dams that have the ability to hold up the water in a reservoir and electric companies more or less have a consistent and controllable supply of potential energy.
Without them, you’re subject to the variations in waterflow from heavy rains and flood to drought. Since energy companies require supplying electricity to their customers consistently, such erratic behavior by nature is unacceptable.
But why are waterfalls usually the victims of hydroelectricity?
The maximum influence of gravity occurs when you’re falling vertically. In other words, if you let a ball drop over an overhanging cliff, you can bet it will move faster than a ball rolling on a steep slope and way faster than a ball hardly rolling on a flatter surface.
The following drawing illustrates this.
Applying this principle to water, you get the fastest conversion of potential energy to kinetic energy when water drops vertically as opposed to when water drops at an angle. The greater the elevation change, the greater the potential energy that can be released as kinetic energy, which in turn can be used to spin turbines, waterwheels, water mills, hydraulics, you name it!
In other words, with its dramatic elevation change, waterfalls provide the best case scenario to exploit the power of moving water influenced by gravity!
Not only that. With the natural elevation change around waterfalls, it’s cheaper to and easier to divert water to turbines for energy conversion.
Some energy companies call hydroelectricity a clean, renewable energy because the sun’s energy evaporates water from the oceans and sends them to mountains in weather patterns. The water runs down the mountains in a demonstration of potential energy becoming kinetic energy. But when the water is caught behind dams, you can control and manipulate this energy conversion. Eventually, the water will return to the stream further downstream and go back to the oceans.
But not so fast! Before you claim that hydroelectricity is clean energy, you have to consider its consequences.
Consequences of holding up watercourses for energy
While destruction of waterfalls is certainly a major detriment to nature and waterfall lovers, let’s discuss consequences that are less subjective (since we’ll always have people agreeing to disagree on the subjective stuff).
First, dams hold up water and create reservoirs. But it’s the reservoirs that tend to displace residents, destroy homes, and drown life upstream from it.
There have been numerous documented cases of Native American tribes and rural residents being forced to move because their homes were drowned by the reservoir.
The latest example of displacement and destruction by higher water levels is at the Three Gorges Dam in China. Here, you have numerous rural residents being forced to move while plenty of historical relics of invaluable archaeological importance are forever gone.
The environmental damage from the Itaipu Dam between Paraguay and Brazil include vast tracts of rainforest drowned by the reservoir. Such devastated rainforests results in fewer trees to scrub the air of carbon dioxide (i.e. greenhouse gases). In fact, the dead matter drowned by the reservoir even adds more greenhouse gases to the air in the form of methane thanks to the decaying organic matter!
Second, the disruption of waterflow from dams results in the buildup of sediment behind the dam. Watercourses naturally erode its banks and carry that sediment downstream.
This is the very same process that results in deeper canyons and gorges over time (after all, that’s how the Grand Canyon was formed). Usually, the sediment is moved downstream which may nourish deltas or estuaries with their nutrient-rich deposits.
However, if the flow is interrupted by a dam, that sediment remains behind it and eventually settles to the bottom of the reservoir. Over time, the bottom of the reservoir can become a submerged mud flat or coalesce into the bedrock.
But beyond the dam, this sediment is missing and that results in a chain reaction of events that (as alluded to earlier) ultimately leads to a dysfunctional ecosystem.
Related to this topic of flow interruption, often times waste is introduced into the watercourse upstream from the dam. Waste can be in the form of defacation (from both wildlife and humans), dead matter, and anything else that gets dumped into the stream.
With a freely flowing watercourse, this stuff gets flushed into the ocean. But with a dam, this stuff sits behind the dam!
Third, the water levels of the reservoir can fluctuate. Such fluctuations can destabilize surrounding cliffs and accelerate erosion.
This not only increases sedimentation in the reservoir, but if you happen to be living on one of those hills affected by the reservoir, you might find your land sliding into the reservoir! This is happening as we speak at the Three Gorges Dam in China.
Fourth, migratory organisms risk extinction with the interruption in water flow.
For example, freshwater salmon can’t continue to swim upstream without the help of salmon ladders. But if the dam is too large scale to have an effective salmon ladder, their migratory path is completely blocked and therefore they can’t spawn in their normal breeding grounds.
Other organisms such as rare native freshwater shrimp in Hawaii are either critically endangered or extinct thanks to the interruption of waterflow downstream of the dam or diversion ditch.
Lastly (but I’m sure there are other detrimental factors), there’s always the possibility of a dam failure. This could be from weakening by earthquakes to poor engineering to old age or even sabotage.
There have already been incidences of dam failure resulting in floods and loss of life downstream. In fact, it happened in Banqiao Dam in the past and there’s a concern that the Three Gorges Dam could be even more catastrophic (i.e. millions of lives instead of hundreds of thousands) if it were to fail!
So with all the negative effects of hydroelectricity, is it really necessary?
The Politics of Energy
There are renewable sources of energy without the baggage of siltation upstream and altered watercourse ecology (from lack of consistent water) downstream of the dams.
Such renewable sources (namely solar and wind) are far cleaner and harness vast amounts of free energy provided by the sun (wind power is a consequence of solar power driving atmospheric events).
So with technology making possible the widespread use of solar cell photovoltaics and to a lesser extent wind turbines and even geothermal plants and coastal buoys for wave energy (plus energy storage mechanisms like batteries to smooth out natural intermittencies), why aren’t we doing it?
First of all, we have to be realistic about how to feed modern energy demands with renewable energy. In order to feed country-sized demands on energy completely with renewables, you will need country-sized renewable energy farms to feed that demand. You will also need enough energy storage to ensure the variability of Nature can be mitigated and the energy supply made reliable.
While fossil fuels and nuclear energy are the bane of the planet’s health (at least in terms of sustaining our own existence), they are a far more concentrated form of energy than renewable energy, and the energy-releasing reactions can be controlled or stored.
In other words, given that the energy density per unit area is far greater for fossil fuels or atomic particles partaking in nuclear energy than it would be for renewables, which is far less concentrated, you can yield as much energy in a tank or tower with the dirty fuels than acres upon acres of solar cells or wind farms at the top of hills for the same amount of energy.
Heck, you can even control when that energy gets released by causing explosions with the non-renewable sources of energy at will.
For a more in depth look at the math behind the various energy plans you’ve seen proposed in the literature, I highly recommend the book Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air by David JC Mackay.
The second (and I’d argue more important) factor for why things are the way they are (even if it’s not in the best interest of long term sustainability of our existence) is mostly control, which is largely a consequence of a world economy that is full of perverse incentives everywhere you look.
Indeed, in order to build wealth, the economic rules of the game suggest that you shall pollute and plunder resources on the earth. If you do it well, you become rich and influential, and that, in turn, allows you to set (or reinforce) these perverse incentives even further. And, as a result, you gain greater control – of people, of life, and of resources, which in turn further reinforce this control in a vicious loop that make the rich richer and the poor poorer.
Put another way, if you can control scarce resources that people demand or need, you have yourself the ability to make lots of money and control lots of people.
Of course resources don’t necessarily need to be for energy. You could have scarce precious metals or minerals (remember Blood Diamond?) or even scarce cocoa (now we’re hearing about Blood Chocolates in West Africa) or even the human body trade for organ donation at the expense of those who are in extreme poverty.
Indeed, if energy is de-centralized and distributed (like what would be the case with solar energy), where’s the monopolization and control (i.e. how can they make lots of money from it)?
If everyone had solar panels on their rooftops, wasted less energy by centralizing cities (instead of sprawling them), maintaining carbon sinks by keeping and expanding old growth natural areas, reduce eliminate single-use fossil fuel products like plastics, etc., then this would be unacceptable to those who are currently benefiting from fossil fuels (e.g. oil companies, politicians bought off by them, workers employed by them, etc.) or other centralized forms of energy requiring capital and infrastructure that only a few can afford to put up and control (like nuclear, coal, natural gas [the latter two are fossil fuels by the way], and to a lesser extent wind, geothermal, and wave).
By the way, if you disagree with the involvement of politicians in the previous statement, look at the coal and oil subsidies they get from taxpayer’s money (no wonder why oil and coal is so cheap compared to solar)!
And with solar energy seemingly a major part of the solution to preserve waterfalls, reduce resource scarcity (since silicon [i.e. sand or glass] is very abundant), and still take a sizable chunk of the energy needs of our modern lifestyle while helping developing nations catch up (thereby promoting geo-political stability), it’s pretty obvious that it should be the way to go as long as the human nature of greed doesn’t get in the way.
Finally, there are more uses of water besides hydro and agriculture which I failed to mention above.
The following website talks about water’s uses (as well as historical use of water) in far greater detail than I can ever do (regardless of whether the usage is agreeable or not). It’s a very interesting read. Check it out here.
Like all things in life, nothing truly exists in a vacuum all by itself. Indeed, like John Muir said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
And so it is with waterfalls that we have found it is an indication of how necessary Nature needs to function and be left to its own devices, which brings us back to our own equilibrium for a healthy mind, body, and spirit.
We have also deeply delved into how exploiting Nature, including waterfalls, has its consequences in that classic irresistible temptation of short term gain at the expensive of the long term whole.
We’ve even looked at some possible solutions regarding energy generation, energy efficiency, and energy storage. And these are all fine and dandy, but whatever solution that comes up, the most important thing is that all materials must be abundant and not scarce, and the energy required to produce the technology must be exclusively indefinitely sustainable.
That said, with an economic system continuing to reinforce perverse incentives that pit our economic needs to survive modern society against the long term destruction of the very things that sustain us as a species on an exceedingly rare planet, we find ourselves in the ultimate catch-22.
Indeed, this is worth repeating.
The root cause of all the things that we perceive to be destructive to our very existence boils down to perverse incentives in our global economic system that we all abide by.
I find it amazing how the very topic of waterfalls was able to bring me to this realization of why things are the way they are.
And yet I still find refuge in chasing waterfalls when things seem a bit too overwhelming, or I need to get back out in Nature where it seems like we were meant to be in the first place.
I just hope that we all can continue to find refuge in Nature (whether or not it be waterfalls) before even these things go away…