“Water is the driving force of all nature” said Leonardo da Vinci. It’s hard to disagree with the great Italian renaissance thinker. Water is the most important resource we have. It makes up over 70% of the earth’s surface and is probably the only natural resource to touch all aspects of civilisation down the ages – from economic development to deeply held cultural values. The need for and utilisation of water across cultures has powered economies, driven health improvements and influenced religious thinking.
The symbolic power of water through the ages
The importance of water has been recognised since ancient times. With water essential to human survival, its presence has shaped human behaviour since the prehistoric era. The very earliest societies existed before underground sourcing or mass transportation of water was possible, so survival was dependent on being located close to rivers, lakes and wetlands. Thus from the beginning of civilisation, humans have been aware of the power of water. This has been interpreted in different ways across different cultures.
This can be seen in the way religions have attributed different powers to water. In Hinduism and Christianity, water is cast as the great purifier with cleansing properties, as can be seen in purification or baptism rituals. In Buddhism, water holds a sacred value, embodying calmness and serenity as well as purity. Offering water bowls to shrines is an important ritual. In Islam, water symbolises wisdom in the Quran. It is acknowledged that life and knowledge originated from water. Native American Indians, meanwhile, attach sacred values to water influenced by its scarcity during their times living on arid plains.
Water the builder of civilisations
Water isn’t just essential for individual human survival. It is also a key factor in the development of the most powerful civilisations in history. Many of the great ancient civilisations were powered by a particular source of water..
Ancient Egypt was built around the Nile, the world’s longest river which provided early communities with fertile land, food, transportation, building materials and more.
Mesopotamia was the home of several important ancient Middle Eastern empires between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, including Babylon which was built along the banks of the Euphrates. Ancient China drew on both the Yellow and Yangtze rivers for food, water, irrigation and transportation. Both are crucial to the country’s economy to this day.
The ancient Greeks and Romans, without immediate access to a large river source, were the first to develop sophisticated water supply systems to fuel their societies. There are examples of early water recycling systems using rain harvesting and filtering in Greece, while the Romans engineered a network of giant aqueducts to bring drinking water to the city.
Water the engine of economic growth
Over the past three to four centuries, water has also played a major role in industrial and agricultural development. Water isn’t just used for drinking and cleaning, it’s also been crucial for many methods used in commercial production (e.g. irrigation, diluting, cooling, transportation of goods). In fact, nearly 9/10ths of water worldwide is used for commercial production purposes (69% for agriculture, 19% for industrial and energy production). Since the Industrial Revolution, the use of water has greatly increased thanks to the development and improvement of centralised water supply networks. At the same time, the improvement in drinking water quality and eradication of many water-borne diseases in the most economically advanced countries has led to healthier and more productive nations.
Water – what future?
Life-giving, cleansing and vital to economic prosperity, water is the most valuable resource we have. But have we taken it for granted? We have used water to enable the advancement of our societies for millennia, but there are signs that we are approaching breaking point. Population growth, economic growth, climate change and bad water management are in danger of turning this once abundant resource into something that could come under serious threat in decades to come. It’s clear we need to drastically change how we think about and use water in the future so that we can preserve this amazing substance for generations to come.