Tapping into tradition: water insights from down the centuries

Fengjing, Shanghai, one of China's ancient water towns © iStock / cyoginan

Our current engineering mindset may not fully equip us to deal with the water challenges ahead. Ancient and indigenous values and practices resonate with today’s ‘new’ holistic, nature-based approaches and so can guide and inspire the next generation of water professionals, writes Kala Vairavamoorthy.

September’s World Water Congress & Exhibition in Copenhagen was a spectacular event, giving our global membership the opportunity to converge in person for the first time in four years since we last gathered – pre-pandemic – in Tokyo in 2018. The exceptional programme provided the chance to exchange ideas and knowledge around a multitude of diverse and inspirational facets of water and sanitation.

A stand-out session for me was the one in which Dr Dawn Martin-Hill, one of the original founders of the Indigenous Studies Program at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, give a keynote address on the relevance of indigenous knowledge to current trends in sustainable water planning. Her words resonated for me, as they evidently did with many others in the room. It made me think how this synergy could further empower young water professionals who already share a passion for the environment and have a growing thirst to make real integrated, community-led, and blue-green approaches to infrastructure.

IWA has long had a Specialist Group that focuses on Water in Ancient Civilisations and which engages in stimulating work around the extraordinary achievements of ancient civilisations when it comes to water management. That said, this keynote address and discussion trod new ground for IWA and led me to recall a TEDx talk I gave 10 years ago about my own cultural experiences related to water.

In that talk, I spoke about how water is not only fundamental to all life – as science shows us – but also gave emphasis to the cultural and spiritual significance water has for communities going back through millennia – it is the life giver, the purifier, the protector of nature. So we see how, for example, in Mexico, the Zapotecan people believe that water is life and that, to preserve life, they need to preserve their forests and territories. While in the language of the Lakota nation in North America, ‘Mni Wiconi’ means ‘water is life’, encapsulating a need to live in harmony with nature and to consider future generations, which made it an appropriate rallying cry for the ‘water protector’ movement protests there against oil pipeline pollution.

As a Sri Lankan, water has particular cultural and spiritual sonority for me. I was brought up with the principle of treating water as a precious resource, never wasting a drop whether we have it in abundance or not. My father used to say, “We are the custodians of water. When you use water, think of it as taking a book from the library. You take it on loan, and you use it wisely for your benefit. When you finish using it, you need to return it in a condition – knowing that someone else is going to use it after you – that you might want to receive it yourself.”

This philosophy stood my country in good stead, where the great kings of two and a half thousand years ago developed one of the finest hydraulic civilisations of the world. To address water scarcity in the dry zones, they built a sophisticated network of small tanks connected by canals to collect and redistribute all rain that the land received. These tanks were built in cascading systems, using the natural topography of the land. This multifunctional system supported agriculture, wild animals and biodiversity, allowed rice to be cultivated all year-round, regulated the local micro-climate, prevented floods, and controlled evaporation.

With this system poorly understood by modern engineers, knowledge was lost and infrastructure was neglected, particularly during the colonial era. Now, in the face of climate change, there is a realisation of what had been lost and inroads are being made to rejuvenate this system. Indeed, they are now central to Sri Lanka’s 2016-2025 climate change adaptation plans, showing just how relevant ancient hydrological techniques are to sustainable water policies today.

From all of this, we can start to see the connection to the past that is there for us all. We often remark: “Water is life”. It is a maxim that spans space and time and connects us with the ancient wisdom that, deep down, we know to be true.

Ancient insights alive and well

We should see the Congress plenary session on indigenous peoples not as a eureka moment, revealing something unknown, but as an awakening. It was an affirmation of the cardinal principle of valuing water and the natural world, and a reminder that some of our notions of what is new in water management is not new at all.

During the panel discussion, all the speakers emphasised how today’s indigenous communities – in continuation of the ways of the ancients – have respect for water deeply ingrained in their rituals, customs, and faiths. I see a continuum of this passion for the natural world in the fervour of the environmentally aware young to protect precious natural resources before these are lost; aware that we are at a critical tipping point with very much at stake.

The water management systems of indigenous peoples in Totonicapán, Sololá and Chimaltenango in Guatemala, which have decision-making mechanisms organised through community assemblies, share a vision of water as a sacred living being, including the people and forests in their territories. This philosophy is shared by other indigenous communities, such as the Saami people in Northern Europe and Siberia and the Blackfeet tribes of North America. So, you can see how these ideas are not a million miles away from today’s forward-thinking integrated water policies that value the community, nature and health.

From the examples set by indigenous and ancient populations we can see themes which – framed in the language used elsewhere in the Congress – span topics such as resource, recovery and reuse, nature-based solutions, sustainable urban drainage, and rights to water, to name a few. And with this we start to see opportunities to connect with and draw strength from traditional insights.

“Water professionals, conscious of the necessity to value waste as a resource, can draw inspiration from our ancestors”

Holistic values span the centuries

As we struggle to grasp the complexities of the natural world and our place in it, and try to apply frameworks such as integrated water resources management, these insights have power at a high level.

While today water is so often viewed as a commodity, divorced from its environment, an Australian aboriginal proverb on water quality can be paraphrased, “If the water is healthy, land is healthy. If the land is healthy, then the people and the culture will be healthy”, revealing the cognisance of the strong interconnectedness between land, water, people and culture. This has been recognised in geographically separated civilisations, where Greek philosophy (Thales, 600BC) begins with the notion that water is the primal origin of all things, and the couplets written by Thiruvalluvar, a Tamil philosopher who – nearly 2000 years ago – took this notion a step further and indicated that morality cannot exist without rains.

So, the guiding principles of sustainable water management stretch back thousands of years. Yet we rarely ground our emerging young water professionals in an understanding of the way ancients thought about water and the landscape it traverses in a way that could encourage them to embed a mindset that values and builds on the experience of our forebears. We at IWA need to do more to give oxygen to this discussion.

A rich pool of resources

We also have a fantastic opportunity to do this. Our membership is packed with researchers and practitioners pushing to transform the water landscape. Whether it is water reuse, nature-based solutions, resource recovery, or the productive use of water, we can make connections across the ages.

Most faiths – informal and formal – have the protection of the environment as a guiding principle, coupled with the notions of sharing with others and respecting resources. The pastoralist Borana people, in Ethiopia, have a traditional system for the community management of water, known as Gadaa, based on a local governance system of water-well councils, allowing them to move with their livestock and have the right to obtain water from the nearest well.

Water professionals conscious of the necessity to value waste as a resource can also draw inspiration from our ancestors. The use of human excreta to fertilise land was so prevalent in China that a decree was passed by an emperor of the Qing dynasty in 1737 CE which called for ‘night soil’ – human faeces – to be treasured as if it were gold, akin to our current references to faecal sludge as ‘black gold’. This resourcefulness can be seen across ancient civilisations from the Greeks to the Romans, and the Chinese to the Aztecs.

We talk about resource recovery and multifunctional systems today. If we look to the past, we can take inspiration from the floating gardens found in Mesoamerican agricultural practice, documented by the Aztecs in pyramid paintings (ca. 1200-1500 AD). These highly productive, lush plots float over wetlands, marshes, shallow lakes, and flood plains, drawing on the sediments, manure, compost, and decomposing vegetation that can be found there, and eliminating the need for irrigation.

On the African continent, in Mali, the ‘Zai’ approach couples a traditional method of rainwater harvesting with waste reuse to achieve soil conservation. Evolved to combat desertification by collecting runoff in small wells (holes) dug perpendicular to the slope of the land, the system allowed more time for water to infiltrate. Compost placed in the holes attracts termites whose activity in turn improves the soil structure. This technique, rediscovered in the 1980s, has been found to be successful in improving groundwater recharge through improved precipitation capture, reducing runoff and evaporation, and improving agricultural productivity.

There are examples all around the world that chime with our current drive for resourcefulness and today’s ambitions for a circular economy. The power of connecting with these examples comes, not necessarily from technical insights, but from the appreciation of the values we share with those who have come before us. The transformation we need is for integrated, holistic, resourceful options to be first in line, the new normal – and this is why we should aim to immerse our younger professionals in these perspectives. We want a new breed of water professional, imbued with the sense of the life-giving value of water, and all the facets that it touches.

The legal link

We can connect with traditional approaches as we seek to define the ‘rules of the game’ – the laws we enact to capture current values and philosophies.

So, we see, for example, in many religions, the notion of ‘the Right of Thirst’. This can be seen as bringing together the current-day principles of access to water being a human right and the community-based concept of water as a resource of the commons. The ‘Right of Thirst’ focuses on the right of all individuals to have access to water without discrimination, so ensuring equitable distribution of resources. While today the SDGs seem ground-breaking and the bedrock of progress, these motivations were equally relevant in the past when social systems were being constructed.

“The insight this knowledge can offer young water professionals could inform practices”

Beyond engineering – working with nature

We can also certainly connect with traditional approaches as we look beyond hard engineering to solutions that better align with the natural world and build resilience to the challenges of climate change.

As early as the 5th Century BCE, the philosophy of ‘the water course way’ emerged in Daoist China as a practice seeking a balance with nature. This concept encourages individuals to internalise the fluidity of water and embody the virtue of ‘wu wei’, meaning ‘not acting’. This merit of character is often described through the metaphor of a swimmer faced with a powerful torrent. The swimmer with the virtue of wu wei is supple and effortless in their movement, surviving the torrent due to their intimate acquaintance with their environment – the rivers, currents and reeds. This philosophy shows the merits of embracing the dynamic of water systems, removing hard barriers intended to contain the movement of water and instead making space for influxes.

The Dutch have long been the proud tamers of rivers. For centuries, they have built a vast network of higher and higher dykes to keep waters at bay in a country where more than half of the housing is located in areas prone to flooding. Realising that fighting with nature in this way is unsustainable, the Netherlands has adopted a programme of strategic retreats, known as ‘Room for the River’, at more than 30 locations around the country, where artificial barriers have been removed and landscapes reshaped to safely allow space for water.

Sponge cities

Importantly, such approaches depend not just on technical options, but on social processes. We talk readily of building cities, but those cities are built by and for people. We need to look to connect the social dimension if we are to achieve progress.

So, for example, there is an opportunity to adapt and adopt the traditional in a modern context in China’s sponge city concept. The idea of ‘water towns’ where water and people co-exist is an ancient one, built on an intimate understanding of the environment, community decision-making and stewardship. The ancient approaches of Ningbo and China’s other coastal water towns look remarkably similar to modern concepts of ‘blue-green’ cities.

Kongjian Yu, from Peking University, who is one of the originators of the sponge city concept, credits Taoist wisdom for the concept’s focus on creating harmony and reconciliation with nature. Originating from ‘water town’ practices, sponge cities embody the integration of ancient Chinese wisdom with modern urban planning and management. Attempts to replicate the kind of public decision-making and stewardship that was embraced in the development of China’s ancient water towns could take the sponge city concept further, enabling them to fulfil their full potential.

Supporting a shift in society

With their cultures based on managing resources sustainably, balancing the needs of humans with that of plants, animals and spirits by utilising traditional knowledge, ancient civilisations and indigenous communities have an understanding of ecological processes flowing through them based on inherited wisdom formed from a symbiotic relationship with the environment.

It is not only vital that this knowledge is not lost, but the insight this knowledge can offer young water professionals could inform practices to make them more sustainable, more agile, and better suited to locations where hard infrastructure alone cannot deliver.

Active effort is required to enable water professionals to draw on the guiding principles of water and sanitation from ancient civilisations, through access to the archaeology, sociology and literature that celebrates these achievements, teaching us a language to enable us to navigate not just the geographical landscape but also the mindscape of society.

“The future must be about cherishing nature… and respecting water as a precious resource”

To begin with, IWA will strive for this through its Specialist Group on Water in Ancient Civilisations, harnessing the interest in water resources history and using this to unpick the tasks of decentralisation of processes, durability of water facilities, cost effectiveness and sustainability. Our changing climate adds urgency.

This must be the beginning of a fruitful and respectful dialogue that can inform water management and give young water professionals in particular both a greater arsenal of solutions for an increasingly testing environment and – if not more importantly – connection with values that they can embrace and share to open the way for those solutions to be applied.

The time for controlling nature has passed. The future must be about cherishing nature, embracing its fecundity and respecting water as a precious resource. •

Kala Vairavamoorthy is CEO of the International Water Association