Can Hydro-Spirituality Ensure Water Sustainability?

Can Hydro-Spirituality Ensure Water Sustainability?

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When it comes to water humans seem to suffer from some sort of “split-personality” syndrome. Although in most parts of the world, water has been spiritually regarded as a sacred substance, water pollution has still been escalating everywhere. The manifestation of this syndrome can be observed at the population level on down to the individual level. It is not astonishing to find an individual who spiritually pays respect to water and, at the same time, may deliberately contaminate water with his or her wastes.

Sadly, in today’s world the spiritual respect paid to water seems to not correspond whatsoever with the way humans treat water in their physical life. Many reports show that today’s most pressing world water problems do not necessarily stem from absolute scarcity of the substance. Instead, they spring from the ever-increasing quality degradation and distribution disparity of water which are mainly caused by human attitudes and activities. We have been, for quite sometime, witnessing an increased occurrence of the commercialization, commodification and contamination of water and water services which leads to the disturbance of the natural flow of water systems disrupting ecosystems and decreasing the accessibility of water for marginalized people. Clearly, the current attitude of humans toward water tends to deny the most important aspect of life, i.e. life coexistence.

Quoting Rigoberta Menchu, a Peace Nobel Laureate from Guatemala: “Nothing is larger than life coexistence; and water is the core element of it – not only among humans but also between humans and other living beings in this planet.” If coexistence is the most important aspect of life, it is imperative to promote the value of solidarity. Hydrosolidarity holds spiritual and ethical values which deny full ownership of water – one of the earth’s common resources – to any living being or any human individual (Widianarko, 2007). Hydrosolidarity can be seen as a realization of the spirituality of water or hydro-spirituality.

Considering the respect paid to the spiritual value of water by people all over the world, this paper explores the opportunity for hydro-spirituality to take a lead in solving a multitude of problems of water. The objective of this paper is to identify and describe factors contributing to the gap or ”missing link” between hydro-spirituality and the day to day interaction between humans and water. This paper will evolve further by seeking a more fundamental explanation for that disconnection. The final part of the paper will be devoted to a discussion of the possibility for reducing the gap between hydro-spirituality and everyday human attitudes toward water.

A Missing Link

Water is a vital substance for the life of the biosphere. It can be found across all levels of living beings, from simple cells to complex ecosystems. For human beings, water is the most intimate and vital substance. About sixty per cent of the human body is water, and it can be found in the body as blood and biochemical fluids. These fluids are excreted to the external world as blood, tears and sweat. The human dependence on this vital substance is reflected in the rituals and beliefs of most of our world religions and spiritualities (Whitten et al., 1996).

Water is often regarded a sacred gift. People of different religions and spiritualities see water as a cleansing substance. It is a common practice to use water for ridding oneself of impurities–both physical and spiritual–and for purifying objects for ritual use. No other substance on earth bears a spiritual meaning as profound as water.

For Christianity, water is prominent in initiation rituals. The pouring of clean and fresh water symbolizes the spirit of God, and signifies a new state of spiritual life. In this case, water blesses the human body and is understood as a means of preparing an individual before having a spiritual union with God. The purifying quality and energy of water is also essential in Islam as Muslims ritually purify themselves before approaching God in prayer. Water also has a distinctive role in Hinduism because of its spiritually cleansing powers as Hindus strive to accomplish physical and spiritual purity. For indigenous peoples, water is not just sacred, but it is very often even regarded as a form of life itself. In Indonesia, for example, some traditional beliefs view water as the origin and posterity of all life, as a spiritual blessing, and also as a healing substance (Whitten et al., 1996).

On the other extreme, certain attitudes people have toward water pose serious threats to its sustainability. The two most remarkable attitudes which degrade the value of water are commodification and pollution. Through the market mechanism people tend to limit the value of water only to its economic value. Water is increasingly regarded as a tradable commodity. This commodification of water subsequently promotes its exploitation for profit making.  Pollution results from the disposal of various kinds of anthropogenic waste which degrade the quality of water.

Currently, there is a growing tendency toward water commodification through the privatization of water. Undoubtedly, the underlying principle of privatization is the market-based mechanism which has a skeleton consisting of supply, demand, price and of course profit (see e.g. the triple-p slogan “people-planet-profit” by Vitens, a Dutch water company). As a consequence, water is therefore treated as a commodity. As soon as this commodification takes place, the notion of ownership will prevail. Considering its profound spiritual meaning, it is clear that the true value of water is beyond utilitarian and commercial values. In this context, claim over water ownership definitely generates an ethical and spiritual challenge. However, there is indeed a generic counter argument to this. In his article in Development Outreach (Fall-2002) Gerard Mestrallet (2002), Chairman and CEO of Suez, wrote

“water is a common good, one of the basic public goods. At Suez, we are opposed to the private ownership of water resources precisely because, in our eyes, water is not a commodity. We do not trade in water. We do not sell a product. We provide a service. The service of making clean water continuously available to all, and returning water to the natural habitat once it has been treated. It is the price of that service that is billed, not the price of water as raw material”.

On paper, the above argument seems adequately sophisticated. By pricing “only” the cleanup and distribution service, and not the water itself, the company seems to pay ample respect to water. In reality, however, people have to pay for obtaining water. They have to pay based on the volume of water they use. Globally, the prospect of water privatization is indeed very promising. It is predicted that, in a decade to come, more than 1 billion people will use and consume the so called “private” water. The most important markets for the “private” water are developing countries in Asia, Africa and South America. The profit making aspect of water privatization tends not to appreciate the human right to water. As access to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses is a basic human right, water governance should therefore not be based on profit. It should, instead, be made according to the criteria of equity, human dignity and sustainability of all living beings.

While the drive for commercialization of water is in its upswing, the prevalence of water pollution is also still rampant. The commercialization of water could potentially disturb people’s access to water, i.e. threatening human water security, whereas pollution will jeopardize the safety and health of humans and other living beings using the water. In the worst cases, the river has been referred to as a sewer or even a murderer (see e.g. Falkenmark, 2006).

Clearly, without a major shift in human orientation toward water the following upsetting condition will prevail and may grow worse:

  1. Approximately 1.1 billion people (17% world population) are without access to proper sources of water, and about 2.4 billion (40%) have no access to improved sanitation sources resulting in 2.2 million people in developing countries, mostly children, dying every year from diseases associated with lack of safe drinking water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene.
  2. By 2025, at least 3.5 billion people or nearly 50% of the world’s population will face water scarcity. Moreover, 29 of the world’s river basins with 300 million inhabitants will experience further scarcity.
  3. The world’s main source of potable water (more than 90%) i.e. ground water is increasingly threatened with depletion and contamination.
  4. One fifth of the world’s freshwater fishes are either endangered or extinct due partly to pollution of water streams.

From the above examination, it is clear that at its current stage human civilization still suffers from a severe ambiguity toward water. There is clearly a missing link between the spiritual and real-world appreciation of water. While it is highly valued spiritually, the same water has been badly mistreated.

Before the above mentioned ambiguity can be obliterated, we will first need to identify factors responsible for this missing link.

Responsible Factors

In assessing the gap between the spiritual value paid to water and people’s day to day treatment of water, we first need to distinguish water’s status in these two different spaces, namely spiritual-religious space and “real world” physical space. In the spiritual-religious space, water is mainly considered as a ritual object representing the cleansing power for removing people’s dirt or wrongdoings, or sins. Meanwhile, in the physical space water is seen merely as an economic good (see e.g. Johansson et al., 2002; Rogers et al., 2002).

As mentioned earlier, in the spiritual space water is often regarded a sacred gift. People of different religions and spiritualities consider water as a cleansing substance and as a symbol of purification. Water blesses the human body and is understood as a preparation of an individual before having a spiritual union with God. The purifying quality and energy of water is thus essential.

In the physical space, however, the current water debate pits those who regard water as a human right against those who believe that the market can rationalize water use fairly and efficiently (Clough-Riquelme, 2003). Each camp of the debate assumes that its approach can lead to water sustainability. However, the current debate on the management of water resources seems too narrow, if not too anthropocentric, i.e. it focuses only on human needs. In reality, not only humans, but all living things can not live without water. Studies on water and human society evidently show the domination of economistic epistemologies in the debate on water although there are actually many other meanings of this resource (Blatter & Ingram, 2001 in Clough-Riquelme, 2003).

The market camp of the water debate has even explicitly promoted price as an instrument for water equity, efficiency and sustainability. To its proponents, the importance of price for improving the sustainability of water is defendable. Based on their study, Rogers et al. (2002) concluded that appropriate pricing may led to (1) improved distributional equity of water and (2) sustainability of the water resource.

The human right camp of the water debate, however, put forward an opinion that by acknowledging the human right to water the world will have a useful tool for addressing the most fundamental failures of 20th century development, i.e. the divide between those who do and who do not have ample access to water resources (Gleick, 1998). The concept of a human right to water has been expanding to cover the broader notion of “the right to water”. The term “right to water” is not restricted to the rights of people but also to the needs of the environment, including river basins, lakes, aquifers, oceans and ecosystems surrounding water courses. Scanion et al., (2004) suggested that if we are to consider the maintenance of ample access to and supply of decent quality water, we need to look at how this is to be achieved beyond the provision of safe drinking water and sanitation. Maintaining a safe water supply means that the overall river basin management, agricultural practices, and other works are vital if we are to strengthen and uphold any right to water.

To summarize, there is undoubtedly a disconnection between the role of water in the spiritual space and that in the physical space. It can be assumed that this disconnection basically stems from the separation between the two spaces. People in today’s world seem too overwhelmingly occupied with the consumptive aspect of water, driven either by survival needs or simply by greed. This separation clearly can be explained by a lack of an integrative approach to water. Attempts or efforts to concurrently extend the meaning of water, from a life supporting substance in our physical space to a sacred purifying substance in the spiritual space, are still too insignificant if not altogether absent. Religions are still incapable of providing ethical principles to guide their followers in dealing with water. It is therefore very crucial that, at this stage of the human pilgrimage, religion, through its teachings, support the efforts of preserving the security and quality of water – the most valuable substance for determining the further existence of the biosphere including humans.

Proposed Strategy

Pollution and commodification of water is clearly an insult to the sacredness of this vital substance. Hydro-spirituality is therefore challenged to provide a good foundation for human-water interaction. For this to take place, there clearly is a need for the appropriate strategy which will enable a dynamic interaction between spiritual space and physical space. Considering the prevalence of spiritual respect for water upheld by followers of various religions, there should be ample opportunities for hydro-spirituality to take a lead in shaping the sustainability of water.

More than a decade ago, in his book “From Care to Action – Making A Sustainable World” – the follow up of the well adopted book “Caring for the Earth: A Strategy for Sustainable Living” – Holdgate (1996) proposed that the first action required to increase respect and care for what he called as “the community of life” is the development of the world ethic for living sustainably. On discussing the implementation of the strategy, Holdgate (1996) openly mentioned one of his concerns is the lack of appropriate support from religions, particularly among their leaders. According to Holdgate (1996) it should not be the business of the religions to provide input to secular debates on environmental matters. He further asserted that the religions should take the higher ground of vision and lead people in faith and commitment.

I believe Holdgate is correct when pointing out the higher role which should be taken by the various religions in dealing with environmental sustainability. In the case of water sustainability, for example, it will not be so productive for religions to get involved in the debate over water in what I would call the physical space. As mentioned earlier, in the current water debate in the physical space the opposing parties are those who regard water as a human right and those who believe that the market can rationalize fair use of water. Taking part in this debate will put the religions in a difficult position, namely in the middle of two conflicting (physical) world views. If religions are expected to give guidance for people’s attitudes toward water, the involvement in the physical space debate may potentially disorient people, especially those who have already defended one of the opposing views.

To avoid confusion among their followers, religions should take a higher stand. They should avoid getting involved in the conflict between the market mechanism and the right to water (see e.g. the Contribution of the Holy See on the Occasion of the 4th World Water Forum). They should, instead, deal with the ethical foundations of water sustainability.

Ethics can simply be equated with passion of values (Cairn, 2004). Human society obviously has some ethical obligations to the biospheric life support system. Society benefits greatly by natural capital and the corresponding services, but gives too little in return and is damaging the system in a variety of ways (Cairns, 2001). We must therefore actively care for the health and integrity of the life support system, including water. The most profound example of human practice that has an ethical implication for water is the exploitation of what Cairn (2001) calls “the common grounds” (e.g. air, oceans, land and water) so that benefits are enjoyed by few and losses are borne by many. To deal with this divide, the concept of hydrosolidarity can be promoted as an ethics for caring for water resources. Hydrosolidarity can thus be seen as a manifestation of hydrospirituality.

As a strategy to improve the connection between the role of water in the spiritual space and that in the physical space, religions must focus on the issue of hydrosolidarity. Religious teachings are challenged to show the linkage between water as a sacred substance and as a consumptive substance under the umbrella of hydrosolidarity. The teachings of religions for different audiences (e.g. those segmented by age, profession, etc.) should touch on the day to day real world issues of water in terms of hydrosolidarity. It is expected that by putting the actual water issues in the hydrosolidarity context, religious teachings will enlighten and subsequently encourage devotees to develop behavior supportive to water sustainability.


Based on the above discussion, it can be ascertained that hydro-spirituality is challenged to provide a good foundation for human-water interaction. The prevalent existence of respect for the spiritual value of water upheld by devotees of various religions allows ample opportunity for hydro-spirituality to play an important role. A higher role should be taken by religions in dealing with water sustainability, for it will not be so productive for the religions to get involved in the debate over water in the physical space.

The proposed strategy to improve the connection between the role of water in the spiritual space and that in the physical space is that religions must focus on the issue of hydrosolidarity. Their teachings should touch upon the actual issues of water in terms of hydrosolidarity. In this way, it is expected religious teachings can enlighten and encourage behaviors that contribute to water sustainability.



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