Water keeps us alive, healthy and clean. It is also essential for the production of food, material goods and energy. But beyond this, it has other less measurable values. Water has been viewed differently across cultures and throughout the ages, and this has impacted the way it has been viewed and treated as a resource.
Different societies and cultures attach different values to water and thus treat it differently. In the industrialized western world, water has been valued in recent times as a functional resource. Since the 19th century, clean water supplies have been deemed essential for eradicating deadly diseases and improving the health of populations. At the same time, water has been linked to economic growth and has played a key role in the production of goods and services. In many of these countries, water use tends to be high and centralized water systems have been heavily monetized and privatized. It’s only in recent years due to the threat of a looming global water shortage crisis that there has been a gradual shift of focus towards valuing water as a potentially finite resource and reducing consumption levels.
However, the value of water has always extended beyond its functional uses and it continues to do so. Religions see water in more spiritual terms, linking it to concepts such as creation, purity, healing and renewal. It is also commonly associated with peacefulness and preservation. In Hinduism, water is sacred and has cleansing powers. Rivers such as the Ganges are seen as holy. In Buddhism, water is linked to calmness and serenity, In Islam, water is life and a gift from God which should not be bought or sold.
Water is also treated as a living being in many indigenous communities. This has led to clashes between locals and authorities over treatment, management and exploitation of waterways in countries such as Colombia and Canada. It has also led to natural resources including rivers being afforded legal rights in places like Ecuador and New Zealand.
When looking at the statistics on water footprint per capita – the amount of water used per person in gallons each day – it does appear that the more developed countries that generally have a more functional attitude towards water, and a more readily available supply of water through a centralized piped network, tend to score worse. The majority of the top ranked countries also score highly in economic terms, including the top four (UAE, USA, Canada and Israel) and many others in the top 15 (including Australia, Germany and the UK).
The UAE’s position at the top is interesting as it is an Islamic country, but it’s one whose economy has been vastly westernized. Furthermore, water plays a unique role in cities such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi where, despite issues of regional water shortages, it is associated with great wealth. Many large and expensive buildings are adorned with opulent fountains and water features as a display of grandeur.
Developing countries mostly feature much lower down the list, although this can’t be put down to differing cultural values alone. Factors such as lack of access to piped water supplies in many areas plus much lower commercial use of water to produce goods and services play a crucial role.
With 52% of the global population facing potential water stress by 2050, governments and inter-governmental organizations have had a wake-up call in the past few years. It’s become clear that we all need to start placing more value on water and change our wasteful practices. There have been some moves to raise awareness and tackle problems. We now have a World Water Day, held on 22 March each year since 1993, which had valuing water as its theme for 2021. The UN has made global sustainable water management one of its 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). This followed a decision to make access to clean water a fundamental human right in 2010.
But many feel that we are not doing enough and not acting quickly enough to avert the crisis. We now have the technological capability to greatly reduce our global water footprint through better planning and more water-efficient practices such as water recycling and using sources other than depleted freshwater reserves. It’s vital that we use what tools we have and turn rhetoric into the necessary action needed. A global water shortage if it occurs would affect us all, regardless of how we value it.
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