Water: ecological, spiritual, vital. And disappearing.

By Katie Stone Reading time: 13 minutes We drink it, wash in it, cook with it, swim in it. We turn on the tap dozens of times a day. It comprises most of our food, our environment, and indeed, our bodies. Yet, most of us barely think about it. Amid the fun and festivities of the silly season, it’s easy to forget the most basic of our biological and ecological needs: Water. Water is our very reason for existence. It’s the source of all life. And it’s never more important than it is during summer. Apart from the obvious need for cooling off, water is crucial for almost every aspect of daily function: hydration, detoxification, lubrication, and restoration.

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 13 minutes

We drink it, wash in it, cook with it, swim in it. We turn on the tap dozens of times a day. It comprises most of our food, our environment, and indeed, our bodies.

Yet, most of us barely think about it.

Amid the fun and festivities of the silly season, it’s easy to forget the most basic of our biological and ecological needs: Water.

Water is our very reason for existence. It’s the source of all life. And it’s never more important than it is during summer. Apart from the obvious need for cooling off, water is crucial for almost every aspect of daily function: hydration, detoxification, lubrication, and restoration.

In New Zealand especially, water is one of our most precious resources. It supports our unique ecosystems and the taonga that dwell within: fish, birds, and plants.

Here, and in many other parts of the world, people have important connections to water through their history and beliefs. The cultural significance of a particular body of water may play a major part in someone’s sense of identity. Māori are especially connected to water in a lineage that begins with Ranginui (the Sky Father) and Papatuanuku (the Earth Mother), continuing through all people and the natural world.

So, let’s take some time out from Christmas prep and partying to bathe in the splendour of this incredible substance (trust me, it’ll be good for you!).

How water shaped humanity

Experts believe the Earth’s water originally came from ice in comets and asteroids that formed in a cooler environment and later collided with our planet. The distinct chemical signature of the water on Earth and throughout the solar system could only have occurred if that water was formed before the collision of dust and gas resulted in the creation of said solar system.

This means that some of the water molecules we drink every day were created more than 4.5 billion years ago. These molecules are older than the Earth, the planets – and even older than the sun itself.

Water created life and continues to do so. Its very molecular structure is responsible for driving important chemical reactions and maintaining the cellular function of every living thing. When it comes to unique properties that support life, no other molecule quite compares to water.

Humanity developed around water. The earliest civilisations built settlements at the shores of water bodies. Cities grew alongside rivers and oceans. Later, advancements in irrigation led to the formation of the first complex societies. Ancient Rome, China, Mesopotamia, pre-Columbian Mexico, and Peru were among the first irrigation-based civilisations.

Water is so important to the creation and sustenance of life that scientists have more or less dismissed the possibility of life existing without it.

As modern as our world may be now, water is still intimately entwined with every aspect of our daily life. It’s not just stuff that comes out of a tap: it represents an enormous part of many societies’ cultural identities. Throughout history, water has encompassed traditions, beliefs, value systems, and lifestyles.

The cultural significance of water

Relations between people and their natural environments are embedded in cultural beliefs.

For centuries, these beliefs have influenced the ways in which water is understood, used, valued, and worshipped.

Communities around the world have created stories, practices, and beliefs regarding the spiritual qualities of water. Many of these beliefs can be traced back to the concept of animism: the idea that natural phenomena are energised by a soul or spirit.

Within animism, water is believed to possess supernatural qualities. It may also harbour water spirits such as the Māori taniwha, mermaids, or nymphs. Native American Indians, for example, believe that bodies of water are inhabited by spirits called ‘water people’, and respect all rivers and lakes accordingly. Although specific meanings vary from tribe to tribe, water is thought to have cleansing properties and can symbolise life or death, strength, change, and healing.

In many parts of Africa, communities depend on rainfall for their livelihood. To the Balobedu, a small tribe within the northernmost province of South Africa of Limpopo, rain is symbolic of the order of nature and the giving of life. The Balobedu worship and revere their matriarchal leader, the Rain Queen Modjadji. Modjadji is traditionally believed to have special powers that allow her to bring rain to her allies and drought to her enemies, and each November she leads a rainmaking ceremony.

Water is also a powerful component of Hinduism, and sacred rivers are an integral part of religious practice. The word ‘Hindu’ is itself water-borne: it is derived from “Sindhu”, a Sanskrit word for “a large body of water”.

The Ganges River (Ganga) is regarded as a goddess who is believed to originate from the top of Shiva’s head in the Himalaya Mountains. Ganga purifies all who touch her waters. In the holy city of Varanasi, Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges will cleanse the soul of sins. The ashes of the deceased are placed in the river to assist their journey to heaven.

The holy Ganges River

For the Māori people of New Zealand, water is te taha wairua, “the spiritual plane (of existence)”. Water is revered as the blood of Papatuanuku, the Earth mother. It provides sustenance to all people and everything that grows upon it. Rivers are especially sacred as a source of mahinga kai – the birds, plants, fish, and other animals and resources that sustain life. Rivers also provide items used for cultural practices such as hangi stones and tools.

Some bodies of water are identified by their specific mauri (life force) that may be thought of as tīpuna (ancestors). Many rivers and lakes in New Zealand are named for legends featuring these tīpuna or events connected to a local iwi or hapū.

The Māori word for water – wai – is used to refer to the form of the water itself. Waikino can be used to refer to dangerous waters, such as wild seas or swollen rivers. Waitapu or waimaori is for sacred waters, such as those used in ceremonies or for cleansing purposes.

Water is also integral to monotheistic religions. In Christianity, water that has been blessed by a member of the clergy is revered as holy water and used to bless people, places, and items of devotion. Water is also a symbol of purification, used to cleanse the mind and body of impure deeds.

The Bible also tells of how God decided to wipe out humanity by sending a great flood. Noah and his family (and two of every species of animal) were able to evade the flood in an ark, but the rest of civilisation was drowned. Interestingly, similar stories about god-sent floods have featured in other cultural myths and legends since the beginning of time. Along with Christianity, Hinduism and Islam scriptures have examples of such floods, as do many folk tales from around the globe.

The global water crisis: what is the future for our water?

As critical as water is for our survival, it has not fared well in our hands. Over the last few decades – possibly longer – fresh water has become increasingly rare.

Water is an irreplaceable resource that desperately needs to be managed. This is something we have always known, but it is only now our existence is threatened that we are starting to do something about it.

Today, more than 1.7 billion people live in areas fed by waterways in which the rate of daily water use is exceeding natural replenishment. If this trend continues, more than two-thirds of the world’s population will be struggling to obtain enough water by 2025.

Already, around 2.7 billion struggle to find enough water for at least one month of the year.

It’s predicted that by 2050, water demand will have grown by 55% and one in five developing countries will face water shortages.

When rivers dry up

Multiple independent teams of scientists say global warming has spawned since the Industrial Revolution (BBC, 2021). Climate change is one of the biggest threats to everyday water access. Weather patterns are changing, causing flooding, tsunami, and drought. Around 74% of natural disasters between 2001 and 2018 were water-related. Over the past two decades alone, floods and droughts have affected over three billion people.

Glacier systems and ice sheets around the world are disappearing rapidly, pushing sea levels dangerously high. In New Zealand, some 13 million cubic metres of ice melted on the Brewster Glacier in the Southern Alps between March 2016 and March 2019. That’s around the same volume of our drinking water for that period.

New Zealand’s rivers are also suffering the effects of both climate change and water abstraction. Many Canterbury rivers have been polluted and drained, leaving endangered native fish struggling to survive.

Sadly, the natural infrastructure of water systems – plants and trees – are being decimated. Deforestation, urbanisation, and overgrazing are destroying the earth’s ability to replenish groundwater.

The global water crisis is unlikely to recover fully. However, there is some hope.

Around the world, solutions for sustainable water management are being generated and implemented. These include systems for monitoring water use and recycling wastewater, such as catchment systems and rainwater harvesting. Policies and regulations that protect natural resources – such as the Clean Water Act – are being put into action, along with efforts to shrink corporate water footprints.

The key to our survival is education. Changing the future of water replenishment begins with changing our own behaviour. The more we understand the value of water – and how it affects each and every one of us – the more motivated we will be to act.

So, turn off the tap when you’re not using it. Fix leaky pipes. Cut your shower time. Choose appliances with four or more stars. Even throwing leftover pasta water onto your garden can make a difference.

And have a great summer!

 

Source: Climate change: How do we know it is happening and caused by humans?, bbc.com

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