Water Is Life

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A flood victim is bathed at a relief camp in Pakistan.
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Children attend a prayer ceremony on a beach in Bali.
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This article is excerpted from "Uprisings for the Earth: Reconnecting Culture with Nature" by Osprey Orielle Lake (White Cloud Press), the recipient of a 2011 Nautilus Book Award.

I do not know exactly when it happened: perhaps during a summer swim as I weightlessly flew underwater, dreaming of curious sea lions who glided upstream with me from their ocean home. It might have been years later as I canoed miles upriver to catch a glimpse of a fledgling osprey. Somewhere, though, my body became a part of the Big River watershed in Northern California. The waters’ spirit cracked open my heart, bidding me to always remember that this natural beauty is not only a luxury to revere, but also an indispensable key to our collective coherence as a species.

The simple and profound equation is this: Water is life. Yet the startling reality is that today, more than a billion people worldwide do not have access to safe drinking water, resulting in nearly 2 million fatalities a year–mostly children–due to waterborne diseases. With water scarcity increasing due to human population growth, pollution, and climate change, clearly our relationship to water must change.

First and foremost, we must secure access to clean and safe water as a basic human right for everyone in every country. This will require not only changing our detrimental use of water, but also ensuring that no institutions or corporations impede this life-giving right to water. Communities around the world are now engaged in critical struggles to protect their local waters, and it is time that we uphold water as a global commons for all. The United Nations took an important step toward this goal in 2010 with its adoption of a resolution recognizing the human right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation.

To support efforts to protect and defend water, we also can look beneath the surface of the stream into the deeper currents of our understanding about it, and in this manner begin healing our relationship with this irreplaceable liquid.

Big River is part of the Mendocino watershed where I have spent much of my life. This gentle, sauntering body of water, whose sloping banks are adorned with willow, fir, and redwood trees, emerges just south of town to join the Pacific Ocean. The redwoods and the entire river’s integrity have almost been lost on numerous occasions due to efforts to log even the last hoary stands. Taking in this beauty involves awareness of the river’s story, her health, her wonders, and her battle–like that of rivers around the world–to survive.

Like many, I have always been enamored with water. This precious element seems the ultimate teacher of movement and shaping, both physically and spiritually. Everything has been touched by water. It has sculpted the landscape of our world, and we, too, are shaped by water. As we look upon the fluid-cut forms–mountains and gorges shaped by snowmelt rivers; craggy shorelines chiseled by waves–so, too, is our consciousness molded.

Not only is this fluid element able to carve and define form, it can also be shaped into any matrix. When water enters any crevice, container, or living entity it will round each corner, bending into every imaginable configuration. And water openly embraces the volume of all things that enter it, yielding to every surface and shape, enveloping a thing completely or, if it is in motion, gliding around it. As I walk Big River, I watch tumbling streams effortlessly flow around several large boulders and then just as easily accept a tossed stone. I think the unique properties of water have a lot to teach us about living in balance with the planet, each other, and our very own nature. After all, at an average of 70 percent liquid, we are primarily unmoored water strolling about this planet.

Humans are as much a part of the cosmic movement of Earth’s lifeblood as are the plants, animals, and oceans. Water is moving through all of our bodies in one giant circulation. We, and I mean the big We of all growing, moving, living beings of Earth, are literally sharing Earth’s water, and these are the same waters that existed millions of years ago.

As the most ubiquitous element of our physical embodiment and the very life force of our home in this galaxy, perhaps there is a message bubbling up from its depths that deserves our full attention at least for a moment: Given our makeup of 70 percent water, we are, in fact, more like each other than not. No matter our ancestry, ethnicity, religion, nationality, or DNA, we are most essentially water.

One of the most remarkable qualities of liquid water is that it is so pliant and yet so cohesive. This fluid togetherness, as many of us learned in school, is called hydrogen bonding. A water molecule, H2O, consists of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. However, scientists observe that every ten-billionth of a second the hydrogen bonds hold, then release, their connection. Water not only bonds within a single molecule but also bonds and shares electrons with other water molecules due to attractive polarities. These intermolecular bonds are also engaged in a flickering dance, holding and releasing, connecting and letting go, to create a seemingly paradoxical event that is supple and yielding while maintaining wholeness and integrity.

In the shallows of a tranquil pool along Big River, a white feather is gliding like a sailboat, held up by the water; it is floating. Pliancy and cohesion together: We would do well to model our thoughts and behavior after these liquid attributes.

The guiding ways of water can be found everywhere. There is an indigenous saying that the moon is the heart of the forest. Beyond just poetic imagery, the moon is, in fact, directly affecting the movement of water in all the trees and plants of the forest, gravitationally, pumping as a heart does. Biologists have studied how water moves and expands in trees and how, in addition to suction and ionic bonding, this movement might be linked to the cycles of the moon and the corresponding forces of lunar gravitational pull. While plants and trees devoutly look to the cycles of the moon for their rhythm in rise and fall, so, too, do the oceanic tides. Can we humans, as personal vessels of water, disbelieve that we are deeply influenced by these same lunar-water cycles?

Only modern humans have attempted to defile water’s natural flow, straightening it into rigid pipes, suppressing mighty river gyrations behind huge walled dams, and subjugating waterways to linear cement canals.

Since 1950, as the demand for water globally has more than tripled, the number of major dams worldwide has grown from 5,000 to 45,000. Many rivers have been drained dry because water is lost through evaporation in dammed reservoirs, and then diverted and siphoned off all along the length of a river, drastically decreasing or altogether stopping the flow.

In her book Last Oasis, Sandra Postel of the Global Water Policy Project tells us, “The Nile in Egypt, the Ganges in South Asia, the Amu Dar’ya and Syr Dar’ya in Central Asia, the Yellow River in China, and the Colorado River in North America are among the major rivers that are so dammed, diverted, or overtapped that little or no fresh water reaches its final destination for significant stretches of time.”

As a Californian, I am painfully aware of my state’s participation in the hijacking and heartbreak of the Colorado River. What happens to the well-being and very spirit of the water when we stop its primordial, sacred flow?

Water must move to live; it is its nature to be in vibrant motion. I cannot help but think that damming rivers is a great offense to the wild rights belonging to water. We speak, as we certainly must, about the universal human right to water, but I wish to add that we need to address water having its own rights. I believe that an inherent benefit of respecting the right of water to remain as undisturbed as possible will be the rediscovery of our own ecological and spiritual equipoise with this sacred element.

Our ever-expanding industrial civilization uses water without restraint in almost every aspect of manufacturing and as a waste container for every contaminant imaginable. Today, due to chemical poisoning of waterways and waterborne diseases, millions of people die annually. A 2010 United Nations Environment Program study reports that at least 1.8 million of these fatalities are children under 5 years old–that is, one child every 20 seconds. Maude Barlow, director of the Blue Planet Project, warns us, “The destruction of aquatic ecosystem health, and the increasing water scarcity, are . . . the most pressing environmental problems facing humankind.”

Although in water-wealthy countries problems of scarcity are often hidden, most of the world is currently thirsting for pure, clean water to drink. People in many countries, most often the women, must walk for miles each day to collect water for their immediate needs, carrying containers that can weigh up to 50 pounds when they are full. Sadly, the hard-won water is often polluted and sickens the household. It is no wonder people in these regions are shocked to learn that other people flush their toilets with clean water.

Even though 70 percent of our Earth’s surface is water, the main portion of it, 97 percent, is salt water. Much of the remaining 3 percent that is fresh is held in snow and glaciers, leaving about 1 percent available. Unabated pollution is reducing the purity of this invaluable 1 percent. Further, the impact of climate change is increasing hot spots around the planet, while watershed runoff is being reduced from shrinking glaciers and fewer wet snowpacks. The ways of water are increasingly reflecting our human actions through a multitude of extremes: from long-term droughts and unseasonable floods to rising sea levels. As we look toward mitigating increasing water crises, we can no longer do so in isolation from the climate crisis, scientifically or politically.

At the same time, our human populations are rapidly growing, and scientists predict that by 2020, 35 nations will experience severe water shortages. Already, a third of Earth’s population is struggling as a result of inadequate freshwater supplies. It is important to remember that there is the same amount of water on our planet now as there was thousands of years ago, but the number of people has greatly increased. We need to listen to what the water is telling us and develop a new consciousness about this life-giving element. Good water practices are at the core of a viable Earth etiquette.

The importance of working together as a world community is one of the messages that water seems to be telling us. Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union and current president of Green Cross International, wrote in the foreword to Water, The Drop of Life: “Without water security, social, economic and national stability are imperiled. This is magnified where water is shared across borders–and becomes crucial where water stress exists in regions of religious, territorial or ethnic tension. Thus we are faced with a mighty challenge.”

Water molecules do not exist individually, on their own; it is their very nature to be in continuous relationship with one another. At this poignant moment, can the global community, following water’s example, address our challenges collectively and come together with a new understanding of water as a sacred commons?

We have an opportunity to respond now in a timely and creative manner with healthy community relations to successfully navigate cross-border water conflicts and to help people who are suffering from an immediate lack of water resources. There are myriad innovative water resource solutions. Villagers in the small Chilean coastal town of Chungungo, with the help of Canadian engineers, followed nature’s example, installing huge mesh nets in the mountains above the village to act like the eucalyptus trees in the area and catch coastal fog. The droplets are funneled into pipes that carry the sky water into tanks for Chungungo. Similar fog-collecting projects have been developed in Mexico, Croatia, Nepal, and other countries, and in both urban and rural areas around the world rainwater catchment is a growing source of water conservation and collection.

New technologies will certainly be instrumental in resolving transboundary issues. Speaking at the eighth Stockholm World Water Symposium, Jerome Delli Priscoli, senior adviser at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Institute for Water Resources, explained that through satellite technologies, countries sharing watersheds have the ability to accurately view the water use in an entire region, leading to more openness and clarity in negotiations, as there is no longer the possibility of secreting data.

Priscoli went on to state, “The symbolic content of water as cleansing, healing, rebirth, and reconciliation can provide a powerful tool for cooperation and symbolic acts of reconciliations so necessary to conflict resolution in other areas of society. . . . Rekindling the sense of sacred water . . . is one way to facilitate the escalation of debate on water cooperation to higher levels and thus impact the capacity to reach cooperation and to manage conflict.”

Understanding that water is sacred and the very essence of life is universal to indigenous cultures. This is also true of people who live close to the land, as any farmer will tell you. Because of this respect, many societies have acknowledged water as a shared commons. In our consumer-market-driven world, however, water is increasingly becoming a commodity for sale, accessible only to those who can afford it. Citizens in communities worldwide are taking a stand to protect their local water basins from commoditization and are learning how best to defend and care for this irreplaceable source of life.

One thing is certain: In addition to innovative technologies and more inclusive and protective water basin management, renewing our appreciation of the spiritual nature of water will be a key component in steering a course healthier than the direction we have taken so far.

Water is the oldest reflective surface known to humans, and it is in this mysterious liquid glass that we first had the opportunity to see ourselves. Water is not only a cosmic mirror reflecting all of creation back to itself in images of lakeside trees, animals that come for a drink, and the ever-changing water-bearing sky, but also a mirror for the inward-looking eyes of the human soul. Ancient Hellenic seekers traveled long distances to the Temple of Delphi to seek counsel by peering into the bowl of divination waters.

This scene reminds us that at one time people everywhere openly honored this divine liquid. In civilizations worldwide, water was known to be holy, each droplet a miracle of life. People frequently went on pilgrimages to sacred wells, divine springs, mystical lakes, and healing baths. A river was a holy place. Almost every civilization believed that life originated in the sea, and many referred to the ocean as the Mother Waters.  

With a spiritual relationship to water universally understood, there were sacred water sites in every part of the world, and to this day, water has held an ongoing place of sanctity both symbolically and physically in our modern world. Islamic, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, and Hindu traditions all impart the story of four sacred rivers of life that originate in paradise and flow to the four directions of the world, while ceremonial washing and cleansing are a part of many religious rituals.

Around the world people continue to practice a multitude of life-honoring water ceremonies: Mongolians high in the Altai Mountains, Taoists in China, Aboriginal people in Australia, First Nations people in the Americas–and many other indigenous people. Aboriginal elders from diverse lands tell us that these water ceremonies are, in fact, keeping the world alive, while both Jews and Christians have rituals of water purification that are central to their beliefs. In Japan, the water ritual of the tea ceremony is practiced daily. The Koran says, “By means of water, we give life to everything” (21:30).

I need to remember these traditions and stories when I am bathing, cleaning, drinking, and washing at my home, bringing this respect to the water that touches my skin. I want to simply and unshyly say, I love water. It is a love that I find is universal among all people.

From snow-capped mountains to white-capped sea, there are multitudes of bodies of moving water, our Earth’s lifeblood flowing through tens of thousands of veins. This yet-untamed liquid landscape moves through our hearts to the heart of the great ocean, and so I am hopeful because the heart is the most trusted place of power–it has the courage to be vulnerable, humble, and unafraid; strong, loyal, and unflinching.

In this way, we can make our stand by water.

D.H. Lawrence wrote:

Water is H2O,
hydrogen two parts,
oxygen one,
but there is also a third thing,
that makes it water
and nobody knows what that is.

I would not claim to know this third thing. I would simply suggest here the possibility that the ingredient is water love.

Osprey Orielle Lake is the founder and director of the Women’s Earth and Climate Caucus and an international advocate for the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature. Excerpted from Uprisings for the Earth: Reconnecting Culture with Nature by Osprey Orielle Lake (White Cloud Press), the recipient of a 2011 Nautilus Book Award.

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