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Author: Irene J. Klaver
Editors: J. Baird Callicott and Robert Frodeman
Date: 2009
Encyclopedia of Environmental Ethics and Philosophy
Publisher: Macmillan Reference USA
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 6
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Earth is the blue planet, the water planet. Nearly three-quarters of the earth's surface is covered by water, mostly in oceans. Water gives rhythm and pulse to life. Moving through all living entities—our bodies, the land, the atmosphere, and our cultures—water connects, transports, and transforms.

That water is life has become a truism. But the fact is, the earth has a biosphere because it has a hydrosphere. Owing to its vital place in life, water has turned into a culture and language unto itself. There are countless sayings, imageries, and references to water. Many fluid phenomena—the fluidity of globalization, liquid capital, and streams of consciousness—have been tied to a water metaphor as flexible and mysterious as the molecule itself.

Ubiquitous as water may be, freshwater is a finite resource. Most water is saline; only 2.5 percent is fresh. More than two-thirds of all freshwater is locked in ice at the polar regions or in glaciers in distant mountainous areas, a little less than one-third is groundwater, and only 0.3 percent is surface water (rivers, lakes, and reservoirs).

Water is in constant motion all around us: in the atmosphere, on the earth's surface, and in its depths. It constantly alternates among three physical states: gas, liquid, and solid. Evaporated or transpired by plants, it rises up into the sky and falls to the earth again as rain or snow, where it finds its way back underground or into lakes, rivers, and oceans. The hydrological cycle then repeats itself. The amount of water on the earth is basically the same as it was 4 billion years ago, and it has been recycled ever since.

Water has the rare characteristic of being less dense as a solid than as a liquid. Consequently, ice floats. Without this crucial property, rivers and lakes in the higher latitudes would freeze from the bottom up, with only a melted puddle on top during the warm season. Water freezing and thawing is capable of breaking granite. Water seeps into cracks, expands and contracts, and with a slow steady force turns even the hardest stone into soil. Water also has a great capacity to absorb heat. Ocean currents play a large role in the earth's climate patterns, tempering climates in many coastal regions.

Water has a pervasive presence in every aspect of our daily lives. We drink it, bathe in it, and cook with it. Our food consists in considerable part of water. Spinach equals milk in being approximately 90 percent water; tomatoes 95 percent; and beef, seemingly so solid, 60 percent. We ourselves are composed mainly of water (two-thirds of our body weight), and we need about 2 to 3 liters a day to live. We can survive for a month without food, but only 5 to 7 days without water.


Because of its vital role, water has always been intrinsically linked with culture. Virtually all civilizations developed around water: Tribes settled on the shores or banks of water bodies, and cities originated at the confluence of rivers. The first complex societies—societies as diverse as ancient China, India, Mesopotamia, Mexico, and Peru—were irrigation-based cultures with ingenious water-management structures, a centralized government, and extensive division of labor. The Romans were also skilled water engineers, building innumerable aqueducts for public water supply using various techniques of hydraulic architecture. Karl A. Wittfogel called them “hydraulic civilizations.”

Through the ages, poetry, music, and religion have found a deep well of meaning in water and crosscurrents of meaning in a vast pool of reflections and emotions about water. Narcissus epitomized the rise of self-consciousness in his self-reflection on the surface of a pond. The cosmogonic power of water has been a major theme in many ancient accounts of origin. These poetic sources are precursors of the later scientifically developed theory of evolution, which confirmed that all life forms emerged phylogenetically and ontogenetically out of water.

In the Enuma Elish, the Mesopotamian-Babylonian creation epic of the third millennium B.C.E., the primordial waters are Apsu (meaning sweet-water “ocean,” “deep abyss,” or “outermost limit”) and Tiamat (meaning “primeval waters,” the one who “is too deep to fathom,” the salt sea). Apsu and Tiamat are brought under control by gods (their offspring) to create the topography of earth and sky.

We see a similar structure in Genesis (compiled between approximately 1400 and 400 B.C.E.), the first book of the Old Testament. Clearly influenced by the Enuma Elish, its opening lines read, “In the beginning … darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” The Hebrew word Tehom, meaning “deep [waters],” is etymologically related to Tiamat.

The Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus (c. 624–545 B.C.E.) considered water an originating and guiding principle (archē). There were similarities between Thales' philosophy and the ancient legends and myths, specifically the ones about Oceanus and his consort Tethys, who was both sister and wife of Oceanus and whose name has etymological ties to Tiamat and Tehom. Thales, however, broke with the traditional belief that the gods organized, shaped, and controlled the cosmos. Hence, for Aristotle, Thales was no longer a theologian, like the old poets, but the founder of natural philosophy, investigating the basic

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principles of matter and theoretically moving toward a scientific treatment of natural phenomena.

Nearly a century later Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535– 475 B.C.E.) found in the movement of water a guiding principle: “All things flow” (Panta rhei), and “One cannot step in the same river twice.” Heraclitus, less concerned with finding unity in a material substrate, was a protophenomenologist, interested in the everyday experience of change: “Cold things warm up, the hot cools off, wet becomes dry, dry becomes wet.” Heraclitus emphasized that opposites are equally capable of transforming and are permanently changing into one another—a constant flux governed by Logos, the first proposed law of nature in Western natural philosophy.

Similarly, the ancient Chinese text Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu (sixth century B.C.E.) masterfully invokes the paradoxical powers of water: “Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it” (chap. 78). Water is powerful yet unassuming. Thus, “The supreme good is like water, which nourishes all things without trying to. It is content with the low places that people disdain. Thus it is like the Tao” (chap. 8). Water is exemplary for leadership in that as the highest power, it accepts the lowest place: “All streams flow to the sea because it is lower than they are. Humility gives it its power. … If you want to govern the people, you must place yourself below them. If you want to lead the people, you must learn how to follow them” (chap. 66).

Humility is also an important value in the Bible, often thematically combined with God's punishment of human hubris. The Flood is the most famous biblical water story, the ultimate expression of God's wrath. In the deluge, only Noah, his family, and the pairs of animals on his arc are saved. At that point the imagery moves from water as an agent of punishment to water as a cleansing agent, and there appears a rainbow, the symbol of God's covenant with his people, in which humans have the first right to the goods of his creation, but in return have to take care of the earth.

In Islam there is a similar ethic of stewardship: The blessings of water come with human responsibility for its proper use. All life forms, including plants and animals, should be supported according to their needs. The Koran explicitly states that the supply of water is fixed and should not be wasted. Water is architecturally revered most majestically and aesthetically in Alhambra, the fourteenth-century Muslim palace in southern Spain. From every room can be heard fountains with running water, which have a cooling effect. A stately pool, a symbol of power, reflects the building at its entrance.

The revered place of water appears in a wide variety of religious rituals and cultural practices, such as baptism and pilgrimages to sacred wells. The spring in the Grotto of Lourdes (in southern France), where Mary is said to have appeared to fourteen-year-old Saint Bernadette in 1858, soon became the world's leading pilgrimage site even though the holy water was “not exactly inviting,” in the words of Emile Zola. The healing powers attributed to the water that wells up from the grotto attracts 5 million pilgrims a year from all over the world. People drink it, bathe in it, and buy plastic Mary figures filled with it. It is probably no coincidence that the Virgin Mary is portrayed as dressed in blue and white, water's colors, which contributes to Mary's image as the life-giving mother of Christ.

Water is a recurrent theme in literature. The French philosopher of science Gaston Bachelard (1884–1962), in Water and Dreams, saw water as a prime source for the imagination. He connected water's symbolic power to purify to its material power to clean and rinse and ultimately rejuvenate, as expressed metaphorically in the notion of the Fountain of Youth. According to the philosopher of technology Ivan Illich (1926–2002), this symbolic force of water has been compromised in modern life. For him, water in its engineered form reduced to H2O hardly speaks to the imagination. Chemically purified and piped, water as a living element has been separated from our daily consciousness.

Water has always played an important role in the arts. Famous Dutch seventeenth-century landscape painting was born out of seascapes (a fact that resonates with the trajectories of early myths of origin). In sculpture, architecture, multimedia, and landscape art, contemporary artists such as Tadao Ando, William Pye, Roni Horn, Basia Irland, and Herbert Dreiseitl—to name just a few—all explore innovative ways with water, implicitly articulating the larger cultural interest in the element. William Shakespeare in King Henry VIII invokes water to convey the fleeting nature of virtue: “Men's evil manners live in brass; their virtues we write in water.” Virtues are seen as ephemeral, as fluid, like water, while vices are like brass—here to last.


The late nineteenth century and entire twentieth century saw a massive harnessing of water through extensive damming, draining, and diverting. Progress was measured, in part, in terms of the control, mainly through large-scale water-engineering projects. The leading water-development paradigm was one of economic growth driven by a utilitarian ethic. Any drop reaching the ocean instead of being used for agriculture, industry, or hydro-power was considered a waste. From the late nineteenth century, an unprecedented boom of large-scale water projects ensued, followed a century later by a rising tide

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Delivering Water under the Hot Desert Sun. A group of Kenyan Oromos (an ethnic division of Ethiopia) travel through the desert to deliver water to Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) troops in 2006. The walk takes a full day, and they each carry at le Delivering Water under the Hot Desert Sun. A group of Kenyan Oromos (an ethnic division of Ethiopia) travel through the desert to deliver water to Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) troops in 2006. The walk takes a full day, and they each carry at least 30 kilos of water on their back. Although three-quarters of the earth is covered with water, freshwater for drinking is a finite resource, and in many places such as Africa this scarcity is already displaying its effects. In addition, the quality of water too is declining, as toxins and other industrial waste pollute the supply. GETTY IMAGES.

of problems varying from silting reservoirs to oxygen-depleted dead zones and heightened coastal vulnerability because the massive destruction of wetlands has taken away a buffer zone of natural barriers against hurricanes and cyclones.

In this whole process, water consumption has skyrocketed. A growing world population has led to greater needs for food and industrial production and an explosive rate of urbanization. Consequentially, the amount of water available for humans and other species keeps declining. About 70 percent of global water use goes to agriculture, and 22 percent to industry, while domestic and municipal use accounts for a mere 8 percent. The high percentage of water for agriculture is partially due to low water-use efficiency, further aggravated by archaic water laws and irrigation subsidies, which take away incentives to use water more efficiently. Moreover, meeting the Millennium Development Goal on hunger entails doubling food production by 2050, which means more irrigation.

An important closeted use of water has been exposed through John Anthony Allan's notion of virtual water, also referred to as embedded water, embodied water, hidden water, or water footprint. It is the water used in the production of a good or service. Allan called it “virtual” because once, for example, an irrigated crop of wheat is grown, the water used to grow it is no longer actually contained, molecule for molecule, in the wheat. It thus takes 2,000 liters of water to make a cotton T-shirt, 2,400 liters for a hamburger, and 400,000 liters for a car.

Also declining is the quality of water, polluted by heavy metals and other industrial toxic wastes, by microbial pathogens and excessive nutrients from untreated sewage and intensive use of agricultural fertilizers. Whereas once dilution was the solution to pollution, such practice has reached its saturation point. According to Jeremy Jackson, a leading oceanographer, the oceans are at a tipping point; that is, environmental damage any moment now could pass an unknown point of no return, at which the ocean's

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resilience, its capacity to bounce back into a healthy state, is exhausted. With the bulk of the human population (60% of people worldwide) already living along or near coasts, and with ongoing growth (by 2025 coastal populations are expected to reach 6 billion people), coastal and ocean ecosystems are on a fast track to devastation. Worldwide fish stocks are already in steep decline. Sea-level rise caused by climate warming will have tremendous consequences for millions of people.

Some foresee that, owing to population growth, increasing environmental degradation, and global climate change, by the end of the twenty-first century water will be the single dominant factor in world natural-resource politics. Freshwater is a crucial limiting factor for health, food security, economic growth, biodiversity, and environmental sustainability. The total volume of water on the earth may be sufficient to accommodate our needs on a sustainable basis, but, as has been argued by various U.N. agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and other water organizations, creating sustainable conditions requires a serious political commitment. Much water is wasted, polluted, drained, or misallocated.

Uneven distribution of water is one of the most poignant problems. People in developing countries use on average 10 liters of water per person each day, while in Europe the average is 135 liters, and in the United States, 570 liters. Roughly 1.2 billion people, one-fifth of the world's population in 2008, lack access to potable water. And approximately 2.4 billion people, two-fifths of the population, do not have adequate sanitation services. Water-related diseases cause 80 percent of all illnesses and deaths in the developing world. In addition, many African and Asian women and girls spend hours a day walking to get water, an activity that severely reduces their participation in other productive activities, including education.

Increasingly, water scarcity is seen in terms of a crisis of management. Moreover, the water crisis is linked to a development crisis and an energy crisis. Its solution is a matter not only of engineering know-how, which we have in abundance, but also of political will. To build a secure and sustainable future for a huge and still growing world population, considerations of equity may become more crucial than concerns of economic efficiency and invisible-hand allocation of water by the free market. Emerging is a paradigm shift from large-scale, utilitarian, supply-side management of water to an environmentally sound and equitably just allocation of water.


Since the early 1990s an approach known as integrated water-resource management has gained ground. Integrated management explicitly advocates a holistic approach, managing water at the basin or watershed level and integrating land and water; upstream and downstream; surface water, groundwater, and coastal water. A more transparent and participatory style of management replaces sector-by-sector and top-down management. In multiple-stakeholder processes, hydrological and engineering expertise is complemented with ecological concerns, while also tending to urban, agricultural, industrial, and recreational interests. Water connects them all and calls for a water ethics that integrates local problems of water quality and quantity in transregional and global political contexts.

Peter Gleick, a leading water-policy expert and director of the Pacific Institute, speaks of a “soft path” that complements the twentieth-century large-scale centralized infrastructure with “lower cost community-scale systems, decentralized and open decision-making, water markets and equitable pricing, application of efficient technology, and environmental protection.” Conservation is one of the main strategies to keep more water in the system. Sandra Postel, another well-known water expert and director of the Global Water Policy Project, calls conservation our “last oasis.”

A variety of changes in technology and legal structures have been explored, and these, together with an increased awareness of the need for water conservation and proper economic incentives, have resulted in more efficient water use. There has been a resurgence of traditional technologies, such as rainwater harvesting (the systematic capturing of rainfall or floodwater) and small-scale run-of-river irrigation systems. Such technologies are often more cost-effective and less disruptive to the social and environmental functioning of local communities. Various new water-conservation techniques have been implemented, such as highly efficient time-released drip irrigation systems. Two commonly mentioned contemporary technologies to increase available freshwater are desalination and water reuse. Desalination, however, is energy-and capital-intensive and generates vast amounts of wastewater, twice as saline as seawater. Oil-rich and water-poor countries like Saudi Arabia get most of their water through desalination and account for almost one-fourth of the world's desalinized water. Reuse is more widespread. Countries as different as Japan and Dubai make extensive use of grey water (nonsewage wash water used in the home) for landscape irrigation. Water gets polluted, but it can be cleaned, one of the great assets of water. More and more municipalities consider treated sewage water as an option for providing water.

New laws also have beneficial effects. Two excellent examples of such legal change are the implementation in the United States in the 1970s of the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, which require industries to

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clean up their wastewater. These laws made many industries more water-efficient, because it turned out to be cheaper not to produce the waste than to clean it up. As of 2008 it takes 5 to 6 tons of water to make a ton of steel, for example, whereas it used to take 200 tons.

Water privatization may be seen as another tool of efficiency. While most water-provision and sanitation systems are publicly owned and operated (globally, 90%), there is a tendency toward private-sector participation in these very basic municipal services. The proponents of privatization argue that it will improve the quality of service, reduce costs, and mobilize more financial investment and technical expertise. Opponents counter that privatization leads to poorer service and higher costs because competitive water markets are hard to arrange (owing to the nature of the service) and profits are valued over service. There have been intense political campaigns against privatization in Ghana (2003), Uruguay (2004), and, most famously, Bolivia, the site of the Cochabamba Water Riots of 2000. Some countries (e.g., the Netherlands, 2004) have enacted laws banning the privatization of public water supply.

Progressive water pricing is often mentioned as a regulative approach to conservation that encourages more responsible water use by means of an incentive. In such a system, a daily minimum amount of water is sold at an affordable price. As a customer's use increases, the price per unit also increases in a stepwise manner. This is the reverse of the usual approach of markets, in which high-use customers are charged less per unit than low-use customers. From a progressive-water-pricing perspective, agricultural water stands out as seriously underpriced.

In reaction to conventional antiprogressive water pricing and water privatization, a growing movement has emerged for implementing a U.N.-mandated human right to water, which would entitle all people to sufficient, safe, accessible, and affordable water. This right would trump contractual rights to water and property rights in water.

There are awareness campaigns about the value of water, water-education programs in schools and municipalities, venues to involve various stakeholders in water management and in citizen-based projects of wetland, riparian, and coastal restoration. Environmental restoration requires amending our relation to the land as much as restoring the land itself. Watershed restoration involves a broad spectrum of human-water-land relations spanning ethics, aesthetics, politics, and participatory activities and encompasses modes of knowledge as diverse as science, engineering, elders' experiences, storytelling, and children's imagination. Celebrations such as World Water Day and local river festivals provide playful ways to reconnect with water and to enhance motivation to learn about water quality and quantity.

Almost 2,500 years later, we are relearning the old Daoist and Heraclitean aquatic wisdom: In water's humility lies its power; in its constant flow lies its stability. All living entities—including the earth's biosphere— depend on the ongoing cycling of water. On a planetary level, we are all downstream. Our future and the future of the planet are written in water.


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Blatter, Joachim, and Helen Ingram. 2001. Reflections on Water: New Approaches to Transboundary Conflicts and Cooperation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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Latour, Bruno, and Peter Weibel. 2005. Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Postel, Sandra. 1992. Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity. New York: W. W. Norton.

Postel, Sandra. 1999. Pillar of Sand: Can the Irrigation Miracle Last? New York: W. W. Norton.

Reisner, Marc. 1993. Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. New York: Penguin Books.

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United Nations. World Water Assessment Programme. 2003. Water for People, Water for Life. New York: UNESCO and Berghahn Books.

Whiteford, Linda, and Scott Whiteford, eds. 2005. Globalization, Water, and Health: Resource Management in Times of Scarcity. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Irene J. Klaver

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3234100304