What does ‘Thinking About Water’ Really Mean?

For many people, water is not something deeply considered on a regular basis. A water bill or thirst may spark some thoughts, or maybe a vacation planned around water features. But a brief reflection on what is water, and what it means, begins to uncover the deep relation that we have. For example, around the globe, the fundamental role of water is a theme within most human origin stories. Because water is an indispensable part of human survival, all cultures, everywhere, have their own sets of understandings, ethics, and awareness of our relationship with water. Unsurprisingly, there is a diverse set of ways that humans understand, relate with, and manage water.

Within the Unites States, and the West more generally, water is primarily valued through an economic lens as a resource commodity, and subject to scarcity – although there are also sacred aspects of water for many people. Nevertheless, water infrastructure and management are based on a resource perspective and privilege an academic scientific model for decision making. However, the awareness, and integration, of diverse values and relationships with water can enhance planning processes leading to more satisfactory planning experiences and solutions.

For many it is hard to imagine water as something other than a resource commodity – one that serves our basic needs and stands apart from us as humans. But this is not the case for indigenous peoples worldwide who may understand water in significantly different ways.

A summary explanation from McGregor (2012:11) is that “water is not a single, discrete aspect of the environment; it is part of a greater, interconnected whole. When one considers water, therefore, one must consider all that to which water is connected and relate…When one considers water, one must consider all that water supports and all that supports water. Therefore, a focus on just drinking water is misguided. It is not in keeping with traditional principles of …the interdependence of all living things. One must also consider, for example, the plants that water nourishes, the fish that live in water, the medicines that grow in or around water, and the animals that drink water.”

The following examples highlight the beliefs of several indigenous peoples and how perspectives can be successfully integrated with common forms of water resources planning and management, promoting more sustainable and satisfactory outcomes.

An integrated approach, that considers historical contexts and conservation priorities, can create spaces that facilitate consensus decision making, and which address conflicts between communities and conservation practitioners (insert hyperlink to British Columbia). Engaging diverse perspectives can also highlight flaws in commonly promoted governance structures and support water management through the preservation of indigenous cultural resources (Insert hyperlink to Western Australia). Understanding indigenous resource management practices can also help redefine our approach to scale of site while designing water issues. Including the roles traditional formal institutions and integrating indigenous values promotes the stewardship of conservation interventions (Insert hyperlink for New Zealand).

These examples, detailed below, indicate that improved water resources planning and management will require agencies, such as the United States Army Corps of Engineers, to incorporate diverse understandings of water and Traditional Ecological Knowledge into planning processes. One of our current projects aims to enhance the integration of distinct worldviews in water resources planning, with the goal of building relationships and developing desirable and effective infrastructure solutions. 

The Okanagan Valley, British Columbia and siwlkw

An image of the Okanagan River. Sourced from Wikipedia Commons

This water governance example from the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia (BC) encourages people to look beyond the perspective of “water-as-a-resource.”

For the Cree, there is no separation between water and human beings. Rather, water is siwlkw, which encompasses the relational aspects of water, that we are all, humans and non-humans interconnected. The related idea of “water-as-lifeblood” is common (though not a homogenous idea) across many Indigenous communities and considers water living and unbound (e.g. by watersheds or pipes), and inextricably linked to human bodily health. While engineers in this case were concerned with parts per million measures of contaminants for drinking water and health, First Nations in BC were focused on the health of water as a primary concern. Contrasting to some degree end-of-pipe solutions with source water protections. While some solutions to drinking water concerns were shared by all participants, the distinctive focus on solutions/protections challenged communication and shared visioning.

 ‘En’owkin’, is a consensus making dialogue process, that nurtures collaboration and considers voices of active participants and those not present – including non-humans. In this process, human and nature rights are interdependent. By subscribing to this process, Indigenous perspectives on the rights water and other entities were brought to discussion. This inclusion of pluralistic perspectives has been successful in protecting and preserving several hydrological environments in the Okanagan Valley.

Western Australia: La Grange sub-basin and Fitzroy Valley

The Fitzroy River near the Yungngora Community. Image sourced from Wikipedia commons

The cultural significance of groundwater to the Karajarri and other traditional owners in Western Australia brings to the forefront the multiplicity of uses and values ascribed to water and how associated knowledge systems contribute to planning and implementation of conservation efforts.

This example highlights the relationship between water (sources) and Ngarrangu (people). For Aboriginal people, ngapa kunangkul, or ‘living water,’ are the sources of life. The water table is referred to as ‘balance of water’ and they recognize two sources of water: top (groundwater dependent and used for drinking) and bottom (big streams that are underground and not used for drinking). The rich traditional ecological knowledge is evident through the organization of these communities in densities that reflect the rainfall and water resources in that area. In fact, tribal territories and ownership tend to follow water flow and water resources. Thus, groundwater dependent environmental features and ecological processes are part of the aboriginal cultural values themselves.

Integrating knowledge of the aboriginal cultural, social, and economic relationships with water, the West Australian government prioritized issues like groundwater restoration, water flow, wetland preservation and indigenous rights and responsibilities, when developing water allocation plans. The process of mutual learning contributed to designs that are inclusive of the ecological, social, cultural, and political values of the communities.

New Zealand: The Māori and Te Awa Tupua

The Whanganui River, image by James Shook, sourced from Wikipedia Commons

For the Māori, water is a sentient being. This relationship with water is reflected in the decision to grant personhood to the Whanganui River, its tributaries, and all things physically related or tied to the river.  This is a first and unique status granted by the New Zealand Government: the river as a living entity, as an indivisible and living whole.

Following the customs and beliefs (tikanga) of the Māori, the river is considered a living ancestor (Te Awa Tupua). To represent the river, an office was created, called To Pou Tupua, which functions to speak and act on behalf of the river and generally look after its well-being and maintenance. This outcome acknowledges and places value on Māori lifeways, demonstrating the importance of traditional formal institutions that manage landscapes as an indivisible whole. The Māori believe that a reciprocal human-environment relationship is achieved when their values and beliefs are integrated in social and economic activities. Enshrining non-human rights in law is a step to doing this by first establishing rights that align with traditional values, which can then shift towards livelihood actions. This example highlights the potential to transform conservation stewardship through the integration of traditional institutions and values and rethinking how water infrastructures are designed and managed.

For more information or further reading, see:

McGregor D (2012) Traditional knowledge: Considerations for protecting water in Ontario. International Indigenous Policy Journal 3: 1–21.

Strang, V. (2020). The rights of the river: water, culture and ecological justice. In Conservation (pp. 105-119). Springer, Cham.

Yates, J. S., Harris, L. M., & Wilson, N. J. (2017). Multiple ontologies of water: Politics, conflict and implications for governance. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 35(5), 797-815.

Yu, S. (2000). Ngapa Kunangkul: living water. Report on the Indigenous cultural values of groundwater in the La Grange sub–basin. Perth, Western Australian Water and Rivers Commission.