Swimmer Kathy Flicker spits water in a swimming pool in 1962.
Swimmer Kathy Flicker spits water in a swimming pool in 1962.George Silk—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Swimmer Kathy Flicker spits water in a swimming pool in 1962.
Missionary priest Vincent Ferrer (left) and assistant Mahadev (right) splash in water from a new well on a model farm in India in 1968.
Thirsty young football players drink water from a garden hose in Denver, Colorado, in 1939.
Linda Joy Young bathes in a sink, Pasadena, Calif., in 1951.
A girl in a village on Saipan (Marianas Islands) carries a bottle of water in her arms and a baby on her back in 1944.
A little girl receiving tests gazes into pool containing baby ducks — an early use of animals as part of medical therapy, 1956.
A sharecropper's son gets water from a pump on a farm in the Mississippi delta in 1937.
A steelworker in Aliquippa, Penn., washes up at an outdoor pump in 1936.
A Bald Eagle's bath in 1949 California.
A soldier drives a Jeep out of the water in 1946.
Rehearsal for an underwater wedding, San Marcos, Texas, 1954.
Water-proofing, 1948.
Writing underwater with a pen, 1948.
Women demonstrate the Porpoise Diving Fin, a streamlined 2-inch thick mahogany plank at the end of a tow rope, 1948.
Kathy Flicker dives at Princeton University's Dillon Gym pool in 1962.
A polar bear seen underwater at a London zoo in 1967.
Underwater ballet, 1945.
Swimmer Kathy Flicker spits water in a swimming pool in 1962.
George Silk—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
1 of 17

In Praise of Water

Mar 21, 2012

Agua. Wai. L'eau. Wasser. Mul. Water.

No matter how you spell it or how you pronounce it, H2O is a wonder: a beautifully simple, simply beautiful element that, when all is said and done, means nothing less than life.

We drink it. We swim in it. We inhale it with the air we breathe, and exhale it when we sleep, when we talk, when we laugh, when we stand outside on a cold night watching the stars, our breath made visible. We sail on it, ski on it and whitewater raft on it. We are, to a large extent, made of it.

Our planet is a shining blue marble in the darkness of space because of it.

And now, today, we're messing with it. The sheer number of human beings on Earth (seven billion, with another two billion likely by 2050) is adding unsustainable stress to the supply and the quality of fresh water all over the globe. While water is life, the limited—and in too many cases, nonexistent—availability of clean, potable water means lingering sickness and even death for countless people in scores of countries.

Here, LIFE.com offers a gallery celebrating the most wondrous of all the classic elements—a small, humble gesture of gratitude toward dihydrogen monoxide, without which we, and everything we know and love, would simply dry up and blow away.

TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website. Offers may be subject to change without notice.