Water:  Sacred Trust or Resource to Waste


  1. N. Anderson

Professor Emeritus, Dept. of Anthropology,

University of California, Riverside


“Bless the Lord….

He sendeth the springs into the valleys, which run among the hills.

They give drink to every beast of the field:  the wild asses quench their thirst….

He watereth the hills from his chambers:  the earth is satisfied…..

The trees of the Lord are full of sap; the cedars of Lebanon, which he hath planted;

Where the birds make their nests: as for the stork, the fir trees are her house.

The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats; and the rocks for the conies [rock hyraxes].”

Psalm 104:1, 10-18, based in part on Egyptian originals such as Akhenaten’s Hymn to the Sun


“For the mountains will I take up a weeping and wailing, and for the habitations of the wilderness a lamentation, because they are burned up, so that none can pass through them; neither can men hear the voice of the animals; both the fowl of the heavens and the beast are fled; they are gone….

The word of the LORD that came to Jeremiah concerning the dearth [drought].

Judah mourneth, and the gates thereof languish…

And their nobles have sent their little ones to the water: they came to the pits [wells], and found no water; they returned with their vessels empty; they were ashamed and confounded, and covered their heads.

Because the ground is chapt, for there was no rain in the earth, the plowmen were ashamed, they covered their heads.

Yea, the hind also calved in the field, and forsook it, because there was no grass.

And the wild asses did stand in the high places, they snuffed up the wind like dragons; their eyes did fail, because there was no grass.”

Jeremiah 9:10, 14:1-6 (the sad touch of the deer deserting her young is based on solid observation, as is so much of Biblical natural history; the “dragons” sound impressive, but are probably jackals mistranslated, and jackals do sniff for water)


“Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting.”  Mark Twain


“You don’t miss your water till your well runs dry,

You don’t miss your sweetheart till she says goodbye.”

Traditional blues verse


“Demand for water is projected to grow by more than 40% by 2050.  By 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in countries or regions in which water is scarce, and two-thirds of the world’s population could be living in conditions in which the supply of clean water does not meet the demand… 750 million people do not have access to safe drinking water.  Roughly 80% of wastewater is discharged untreated into oceans, rivers and lakes.  Nearly 2 million children under the age of 5 die every year for want of clean water and decent sanitation….  Two and a half billion people do not have adequate sewage disposal.”  (Eliasson 2015; imagine it in 2050, with 10 billion people and all fresh water resources tapped out or depleted.)


The quotes give several views of water.  In abundance, it gives life.  Drought is the starkest and most terrifying symbol of death and loss.  Water is for fighting, and for cold economic calculations that imply all the horrors Jeremiah saw.

The western United States has a water problem.  Its water resources are exceedingly limited by climate and geography.  It is expanding rapidly.  Its citizens love lawns and gardens.  All models show that the American Southwest will be one of the most drastically drought-stricken areas of the world as global warming progresses (Overpeck and Udall 2010).  The climate we now associate with Arizona’s southwest border will move northward.   Arizona’s reservoirs will run dry.

Groundwater is overdrawn in Arizona, as elsewhere (Glennon 2004).  There is little recharge of Arizona’s groundwater basins today; the water is essentially fossil water, left over from the Pleistocene.

Arizona’s water is seriously overcommitted already.  The Colorado River is overcommitted by at least 50%.  It does not reach the sea; in fact, it is essentially dry below the Arizona-Mexico line, in violation of treaties with Mexico.  The Gila, Arizona’s major tributary of the Colorado, no longer comes even close to the Colorado except during abnormal flow.  Indeed, most of Arizona’s rivers are now dry washes for at least part of their length.  I remember when the Santa Cruz River still ran through Tucson, feeding mesquite thickets and the occasional cottonwood.  No longer.

At least Arizona is not, so far, forced to draw on poisoned wells, like the citizens of Bangladesh whose wells are increasingly contaminated with arsenic from groundwater.  Development has forced people to dig deeper wells, diverted and spread out aquifers, and introduced alkalinity and carbon that mobilize the arsenic, making water deadly in Bangladesh and parts of Vietnam (Daigle 2016).  Everywhere, though, agricultural and industrial wastes, including extremely toxic ones, are percolating into groundwater.

Arizona and drought-stricken California are typical of an emerging problem.  Worldwide, the situation is bleak.  Several excellent reviews of the situation exist, The best include Fred Pearce’s When the Rivers Run Dry (2007) and Peter Gleick’s biennial reviews of world freshwater resources (e.g. Gleick 2006; see also De Villiers 2001; Fagan 2008; Glennon 2004; Oki and Kanae 2006; Postel 1999; Rogers 2008; Shiva 2002; Strang 2013.)

The Colorado River is not the only major river that no longer reaches the sea.  The Nile, the Yellow River of China, and many other rivers now share this dubious distinction.  The drying of the Yellow and other rivers in China has left 300 million people without adequate water for irrigation, sanitation, or locally even drinking (Smil 2004); there as in more and more parts of India, water must be trucked to villages.  Deforestation led to huge floods in China and elsewhere (Laurance 2007).  The Chinese belatedly tried to stop logging, but were too late; illegal logging is rampant (according to many reports I have heard, including studies ongoing by my students).  The Three Gorges Dam, in addition to its countless other problems, is already silting up because of deforestation (Stone 2008).  Droughts have brought down civilizations, including the ancient Maya (Gill 2000).  They have also depopulated whole areas of the United States, as in the dust bowl or the Oregon desert (Jackman and Long 1967).  Agriculture now uses 2/3 of the world’s available fresh water, and population is growing; desalination is still expensive in money and energy (Schiermeier 2014).

A recent review in Nature (Vőrősmarty et al. 2010) finds that river overuse and misuse is leading to a collapse of freshwater biodiversity.  Only 0.16% of the world’s rivers do not show this deterioration, and they are in isolated Arctic areas.  No area with water overdraft has avoided biodiversity problems.  Areas where dams and water systems have enabled consumers to have enough water in spite of short supply have done so at the expense of biodiversity; the dams and diversions dry up wetlands and distort the ecology.  A huge percentage of the world, including most of the United States, and virtually all of Mexico, China, India, and the drier parts of Africa, is now stressed.  As is expectable, the Nile is a particularly scary situation, with 180 million people depending on one relatively small (if long) river.  Most of its course is degraded, and from Cairo downstream it is basically a sewer.  Some short rivers now flow entirely within urbanized areas and have become urban drains (e.g. the Ogun River in Lagos, Nigeria) (Vőrősmarty et al. 2010:557).  Vast water transfer projects have dried up rivers.  The biggest of all, in China, transfers water from the Yangzi drainage to the north.  It is inadequate, but is causing major ecological and social disruption including displacement of millions of people (Barnett et al. 2015).

Deltas are also in extreme danger (Cooper et al. 2015).  Global warming is adding to existing problems by raising sea levels and causing more intense storms.  Groundwater withdrawal, pollution, poor dyke maintenance, poor erosion control, and similar problems are endangering the world’s deltas, in which a large percentage of the world’s population resides.

Global warming increases rainfall—rain has increased about 1% already and will increase 5% more before the end of this century (Smil 2008:401).  However, this rain will be largely over the ocean or in already-rainy areas.  On average, global warming is already drying up the land, worldwide (Jung et al. 2010).  It will increase drought in areas like the American Southwest.

Indeed, in spite of overall rain increase, the dry parts of the world are rapidly getting drier.  This is already happening in western North America and the Middle East.  The driest rainfall year in southern California history, as of 2000, was a year in the 19th century that gave Los Angeles about five inches and Riverside three.  Since 2000, 2001-2 gave Los Angeles four and Riverside less than three, and then 2006-7 only three and two respectively.  The winter of 2014-2015 was virtually rainless throughout the whole states of California and Nevada (figures from ongoing daily totals in the Los Angeles Times).  Projections of enormous rains the following winter were not fulfilled; southern California was drier than ever.

Population is rapidly expanding.  Agriculture is taking more and more.  The really productive agriculture of the world is typically irrigated.  The world’s best soils, irrigated ornot, are being rapidly urbanized and rendered unavailable for farming.  Cities have naturally been located where agriculture was most productive; in this age of urban sprawl, that has become, ironically, a recipe for disaster.  Urbanization pushes more and more agriculture out into increasingly marginal irrigated lands.

Some 66% of the world’s people do not have reliable access to fresh water (Bellware 2016), and the number is growing.  Extreme cases include Egypt, wholly dependent on the Nile, with a rapidly growing population not only in Egypt itself but in the upriver countries from whence the Nile comes.

Water use for agriculture is far greater than most people realize.  Agriculture takes 80-90% of California’s water, though supplying only 2% of the state’s monetary wealth; of course it provides food, something impossible to do without, so it is far more important than that 2% figure indicates.  A single almond requires 1.1 gallon of water; of course this can all come from rain—almonds are not irrigated in much of Spain or northern California—but almonds are heavily irrigated in much of California.  A head of broccoli takes 5.4 gallons, an orange 13, a single walnut 4.9, a tomato 3.3.  One strawberry requires only 1.9.  Only a grape is lower, at 0.3.  Again, these figures refer to products 100% irrigated (Park and Lurie 2014; see also Appendix).

Smil (2008) reports that rice requires 2300 kg (liters) of water to produce 1 kg of rice; beans, 2000; wheat, 1300; corn, 500; vegetables, 100 up; chickens, at least 4000; pork meat (muscle tissue—not whole pig) 10,000; beef 15,000.  Cotton and coffee are in the range of pork and beef, not in the range of grain.  Smil also notes that Americans “waste” 35-45% of the food available in the US.  (This is a bit harsh.  A lot of the “waste” is spoilage and other storage loss, which could be avoided but only with difficulty.)  This is a huge waste of water.

Households use a lot of water also, and they use much more if they are rich.  Rich people like huge lawns and water-sucking landscaping, as well as large swimming pools.  Thus communities differ.  In California overall, households and their outdoor landscaping use 360-400 gallons per day on average.  Turfgrass covers an estimated 11,000 square km of the state, consuming incredible quantities of water in California’s extreme drought of recent years; the water could all be saved by substituting dryscaping (Lees and Bowler 2015).

Consumption strictly within the house varies greatly.  In southern California, north Tustin’s Golden State Water Co. reports that its domestic user households (apparently not counting outdoor watering) average 281 gallons per day.  Next is La Cañada-Flintridge, with 191; East Orange County, 174; Arcadia, 173; Malibu, 165.  At the other end is Covina, 27; Vernon, 35; and Santa Ana, 38.  The Los Angeles overall figure is 70, the United States average 98.  Of course, the water use in southern California communities generally tracks wealth, but Covina is an interesting standout; it is a pleasant middle-class community that simply has economical landscaping.  Vernon, by contrast, is a desperately poor industrial ghetto, and Santa Ana is largely apartments.  A problem with the water economy in poor neighborhoods is that they are covered with asphalt and concrete, so the rain that falls on them goes directly into the sea instead of sinking into groundwater.  Thus, ironically, they waste far more than they consume.

Manufacturing takes more and more water.  Contamination is very rapidly increasing everywhere, and includes some horrific problems unknown till recently, including an explosive increase of drugs in the water.  Everything from cocaine to birth control pills is contaminating water supplies, with rapidly mounting serious effects.

Cities are rapidly expanding and using more and more water.  Much is lost to storm drains, leaky pipes, and evaporation (Larsen et al. 2016).  Sewage goes untreatred in much of the world.  Most of Africa lacks improved drinking water sources (Larsen et al. 2016:930).  Updating the world’s water systems simply to eliminate massive leakage would take billions of dollars and more will than current governments seem to have.  The problems of water supply take a back seat compared to war, crime, disease, and political conflict.


Peter Gleick, with Meena Palaniappan (2010), has shown that the world has plenty of fresh water, but not where people want it and not always in usable form or situation.  About 70% of it is tied up in ice sheets (rapidly melting with global warming).  Most of the rest is in groundwater, much of it too saline or deep-down to use.  These two authorities describe three types of peak water.  Renewable peak water refers to river flow and renewable groundwater.  This will reach peak when drafts on the water equal inflow, as on the Nile and Colorado now.  Nonrenewable peak water will occur when withdrawal of fossil groundwater becomes more expensive than the water is worth.  This is close to occurring in much of the world, including parts of the Ogallala Aquifer in the United States.  Ecological peak water occurs when damage to ecological services exceeds benefits from the water.  This is a sliding economic scale and very hard to calculate.

Also typical is waste of water by the rich, for trivial purposes, to the ultimate suffering of everyone.  Vast lawns and golf courses take up a huge percentage of the water in urban and developed areas.  In California, water withdrawn by giant agribusiness for very low-value agriculture (irrigating wild hay, potatoes, and the like) has destroyed extremely productive and high-value fisheries as well as wetlands that had less quantifiable but no less real values.  California now faces a huge water crisis that will send water prices sky-high for everyone—though no one really benefited from the hay and potatoes.

Water use for cities and irrigation tends to remove the water from the aquifer recharge system, thus leading to faster reduction of aquifers.  Where irrigation causes buildup of groundwater instead of drawdown, the buildup is often salty, making the water unusable.


Access to water should be about the most basic matter of environmental justice, and thus has been addressed by Meena Palaniappan et al. (2006), and by Wutich and Brewis (2014) in a long and important article.  They raise the usual cases of big dams, water privatization, and water waste by large-scale schemes, in the context of environmental justice, particularly for minorities and people of color (see esp. pp. 120-122, a statement on environmental justice).

Ismail Serageldin, former World Bank vice-president and a leading resource economist, said in 1995—as reported by Wendy Barnaby in an article in Nature—that “the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water” (Barnaby 2009).  This was overstated on both counts.  As of 1995, the main war over oil was still to come: the Iraq war in the next century.  And there has still never been a war over water.

Wendy Barnaby started out to write a book on the coming water wars.  Her research showed that no country has come even close, as of 2009.  Countries will deal over water.  It is not nearly so limited as oil; most countries have plenty of it.  The few dry countries can import water-demanding products (from fresh fruit and meat to paper).  She thus predicted that there will not be wars over water in the 21st century.  Many are not so sure.  Several letters to Nature about her article argued against her position.  Since her book appeared, there have been more and more dire predictions, but still no war over water.   Countries find treaty-making far preferable to fighting.  But local conflicts have erupted, and, as one letter says, “the potential for water conflict is on the increase, as populations in water-stressed areas continue to grow and the demand for water increases to improve living standards with better sanitation and a water-intensive diet” (Kundzewicz and Kowalczak 2009).

Detailed and thorough studies of transboundary water conflicts, now and in future, by Aaron Wolf and his group (Di Stefano et al. 2012; Wolf 2007) come to the same conclusion.  They emphasize the fact that even countries in serious conflict—and not just a few, but many—have managed to come to agreements about transboundary rivers.  They foresee a world of much more conflict, with at least 61 river basins short of water by 2050 and in potential conflict (Di Stefano et al. 2012), but provide full details on how new treaties could be negotiated to solve the immediate problems—though not the longer-term one of sheer exhaustion of freshwater resources.

Some countries are truly desperate:  Tunisia, Afghanistan, Jordan, and many others.  Some are very close to the edge, and will not be able to carry out current development plans without extremely major changes in water management; this includes China, India and Iran.  Some are in desperate straits because they are downstream:  Egypt, Syria and Iraq depend almost entirely on river flow from other countries.  Barnaby points out that Egypt has treaties with its upstream suppliers, but those are Sudan and Ethiopia, countries with no history of honoring such scraps of paper.  At present, Egypt has its armed forces on the ready.  Syria and Iraq are in worse shape, since their supplier, Turkey, has a military that could beat both of them (and several other countries) at once with ease, especially given their current chaotic state.  Big dams under construction in Turkey could cut off water to those nations.  My interviews with experts in Turkey in 2000 indicated that the government had little or no concern over that.  The same appears to be still the case.


The world’s fresh water is exceedingly limited.  Almost all of it is used to capacity.  Much of it, including the Colorado River, is overcommitted.  Much of the United States is under some form or other of English common law, variously adapted.  This guarantees riparian rights: people on a watercourse have rights to the water.  In this context, it is well to remember that the English word “rival” derives from Latin rivus, “riverbank,” as does the word “river.”  Twain’s famous comment on water in the west, quoted at the head of this paper, emphasizes the point.

This has been widely extended to water allocation, including a “first in time, first in right” principle that is the greatest bane of California water law.  Agricultural interests that descend, legally, from those established in the 19th century dominate the state, and sell, rent, or otherwise profit from their rights.

This leaves groundwater in a legal limbo.  Normally, anyone who owns the surface of the land owns the right to pump the water—in striking contrast to the rules concerning oil and minerals.  As a result, groundwater reservoirs are rapidly being exhausted.  Global warming is causing drought in arid parts of the world, including California and the southwestern US, and this has led to massive withdrawals of groundwater—many times more than could be recharged even in a good year, let alone in the horrible droughts that have followed on global climate change.  Until 2014 California (unlike other western states) had no regulations on groundwater use.  In late 2014, the Legislature finally recognized that catastrophic drought was forcing their hand and was here to stay, so even the most obstructionist Republicans agreed to pass a groundwater regulation law (George Skelton, 2014, decribed the micropolitics).

We cannot easily get more water.  Towing Antarctic glaciers north and desalting sea water are the only possibilities. This being said, more efficient use of water is imperative.  This is especially true of drylands agriculture (Cleveland 2014; Rockström and Falkenmark 2015).  There are two particularly fine books about how to do this:  David Cleveland and Daniela Soleri’s Food from Dryland Gardens (1991) and Gary Nabhan’s Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land (2013).

Sewage treatment is the most obvious and immediate need worldwide.  It would free up a great deal of water for better use.  Another need is dealing with waste of water in irrigation.  Drip irrigation instead of sprinklers, natural landscaping instead of lawns, and control of golf courses are familiar themes.  Common now is the use of dryscaping in place of grass lawns.  The total area of lawns and related water-demanding landscaping in the United States is greater than the area of Pennsylvania.  Lawns and ornamental gardens take a wholly disproportionate amount of water, pesticides, and fertilizers.

Few people seem to realize that human use of water for drinking and bathing is utterly insignificant relative to the use in agriculture and industry.  Personal use is less than 1% of all water use.  We should all take short showers, but it won’t matter much in comparison to even very water-sparing industrial processes, let alone agriculture.

Meat and milk are the worst problems (see Appendix).  Cows are fed on irrigated feed, and demand huge amount of water themselves for drinking and washing; then processing their meat and milk takes yet more water.  I have seen a wide range of figures for the water requirements of this process, but all are in the range of hundreds to thousands of gallons for a pound of beef or bottle of milk.  We need to go back to eating cactus fruit, mesquite beans, and prickly pear pads.  Or at least feeding them to the cows—there are areas of the world, including south Madagascar, where cows get along with essentially no water by living on spineless varieties of prickly pear.  Cotton is probably second; it is grown in dryland areas by irrigation, and is an incredibly thirsty crop.

People are very poor estimators of their water use.  Shahzeen Attari (2014) found that people underestimate household water use; they use about twice what they think they use.  Moreover, they think of saving waters in terms of curtailment (shorter showers and the like) rather than more efficient devices (low-flow shower heads, better toilets), though the latter would make far more difference, in most households.  Thomas Dietz (2014) placed this finding in a context of human cognition and decision-making, noting that it is all too typical of human understanding of environment and of factors influencing environment-affecting decisions.

Water experts are now talking about “virtual water,” a concept developed by John A. Allen in the 1990s (Barnaby 2009; Smil 2008).  It takes into account the water needed to produce goods.  All agricultural commodities and all manufactured goods require large amounts of water.  My consumption of such goods uses water indirectly.  If I buy a cotton shirt, I am probably not using any American water to speak of, but I am using enormous quantities of Egyptian and Chinese water—assuming, as if often the case, that the cotton is grown in Egypt and the shirt is made in China.  The horrific case of cotton in Uzbekistan is entirely export-driven.  Whoever gets the good quality cotton items made from Uzbeki cotton is ruining that desperately stressed nation, but is probably quite unaware of the fact (see Globalization of Water [Hoekstra and Chapagain 2008])

On the other hand, Barnaby (2009) points out that a dry country can spare its limited water resources by importing food and not growing crops with high water requirements.  Most of the water used to produce grain and coffee comes from rainfall, but most of that used to produce meat, cotton, and many vegetables is irrigation or piped water.  Thus, by eating lower on the food chain, and by wearing clothing more economically, we could save enormous amounts of water.

In China, water could be saved most easily by giving up irrigation in really water-short areas like Inner Mongolia and around Beijing, where groundwater is depleting at dramatic speed.  Agriculture drives 65% of water withdrawals in China, 59% worldwide (and 80 in California).  Inner Mongolia loses the most virtual water, in the form of agricultural products exported to the rest of China.  China imports 30% of its virtual water in the form of soybeans, beef, and similar products from other countries (Dalin et al. 2015).

An example of unconventional solutions comes from Peru.  Lima is essentially rainless, but very foggy (especially in winter), because of the cold water of the Humboldt Current just offshore.  In ancient times, this fog sustained lomas—areas of dense vegetation, even forests, inhabited by animals as large as deer.  Today, there is an attempt to restore these.  Large, dense nets have been set up, on which the fog congeals into water.  This is directed down to young trees.  When the trees are old, they will strain their own fog, thus restoring the old lomas forests.  The drought-tolerant local tree Caesalpinia spinosa is being tried, because of its useful fruit and timber (Vince 2010).  This idea could be used in many other places where cold currents run along desert shores:  Baja California, Morocco, South Africa and elsewhere.


Governments mismanage water because of incompetence, corruption, and bureaucratic paralysis (see Ascher 1999 for the best discussion of the general problem of government mismanagement of resources).

Mismanagement of water resources not only leads to loss of water; it leads to poisoned soil.  Salts of all kinds leach out from upstream or leach upward from deep in the earth.  I have seen thousands of acres in Australia rendered unusable because farmers cleared off the forest and planted wheat.  Without the deep roots of the trees, the groundwater from deep underground moved upward, carrying salt.  The ground over millions of acres of Australia is now white with salt and will be unusable for millennia.

Public relations campaigns endlessly “spin” the benefits of pollution, the need for rampant and unregulated economic growth, and the inexhaustibility of fresh water and other resources (Stauber and Rampton 1996).  The western United States has been repeatedly fooled by inflated figures, using, for instance, far-above-average river flows as baselines.  Agriculture has changed from careful management of water to considerable waste, partly due to the rise of big agribusiness (see Monks 1998 for a rare critique of this).  There is some hope of changing back.  Meanwhile, Arizona and California cities buy water rights from farmers.


The poster child for water mismanagement is the Aral Sea (Kobori and Glantz 1998; Micklin and Aladin 2008; Varis 2014).  The Aral Sea is a vast lake in a closed basin in central Asia.  For millennia, it was sustained by model water management.  Some of this management was developed by unlikely heroes, including Genghis Khan and Tamerlane the Conqueror.  A rich economy producing wheat, barley, silk, melons, vegetables, and livestock developed along the Amu and Syr Rivers.

The Soviets changed all that.  They planned to turn the whole basin into a vast cotton source.  The resulting monocrop agriculture has been a disaster.  It takes many times as much water as the old economy did.  Also, cotton uses more artificial chemicals than any other crop; one-third of all the pesticides in the world are used on cotton.  Wheat is also intensively irrigated.  The result is that the nations in question use more water per capita than any others on earth; Turkmenistan is far ahead of others, followed by Iraq and rice-growing Guyana and then by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, the United States,Tajikistan, Estonia, Canada (water-rich), Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan (Varis 2014).  In water use per dollar of GNP, the situation is even more extreme.  The nations that use the most water per dollar of GNP are, in order, Tajikstan, Kyrgystan, Madagascar, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan.  All are central Asian and dependent on the Amu Darya drainage, except for rice-dependent, impoverished Madagascar.

The Amu Darya now does not get even close to its former mouth into the Aral Sea.  A toxic mix of natural salts and accumulated pesticides and fertilizers blew over the desert plains.  Infant mortality in the Amu delta reached 10% and locally 50% (Micklin and Aladin 2008; Paul Buell, pers. comm. on basis of wide reading of the Uzbekistan press).  The huge fishery of the Aral Sea disappeared as the sea dried.

There remains a small salty puddle in the lake basin.  Most of the basin is now owned by Uzbekistan, which is trapped in a vicious circle:  it cannot stop growing cotton, the source of most of its income, and cannot make enough from cotton to do much.  The north end of the Aral Sea is more fortunate; it is owned by Kazakhstan, which is richer and has a more diverse economy.  Kazakhstan has dyked off its end, which includes the Syr River delta, and is slowly restoring that end of the sea (Micklin and Aladin 2008).  But there is no hope of real restoration.  The Aral basin is ruined forever, and will never produce more than a tiny fraction of the wealth it produced in Tamerlane’s time.  Meanwhile, the irrigated lands become ever more salty and poisoned by pesticides, so they will soon go out of production permanently.  The other rivers that water Turkmenistan and Afghanistan are in the same situation.  How long irrigation will last in these formerly rich lands is an open question.

Lake Urmia, in northwest Iran, is rapidly following the Aral Sea into oblivion.  Only 10% of it is left.  The irrigation is this case is for sunflowers and other water-demanding crops.  These replaced water-sparing vineyards when Iran’s extremist government banned wine production in 1979.  Religion has strange side effects, and, as will appear, it is particularly strange when Islam is the religion in the case.

Humans not only tolerate large amounts of salt but must have it to live. Plants, however, cannot stand more than tiny traces of it in the soil, with the exceptions of certain highly specialized forms.  The only major cultivated crops that tolerates much salt are barley and sugar beets, and even they do not tolerate much.  The world needs to think seriously about domesticating edible forms of saltbush, salicornia, and other marginally-edible salt-loving plant species.

Arizona’s current scene has an unpleasantly suggestive antecedent in the fall of the Hohokam civilization.  The Hohokam and their neighbors constructed an incredible network of canals in the Gila and Salt drainages.  Some of these were as large and long as major modern irrigation canals.  They fed an intensive agriculture based on maize, beans, squash, agaves, and many other crops.  Sophisticated terracing and check-damming added to the water management picture.  Yet, after devastating droughts in the 1200s, the Hohokam fields dried up or salted up (Abbott 2003; Redman 1999).  The Salt River deserves its name, and thus was not a good river to use for irrigation.

The Little Ice Age came, and the rivers refilled.  The Pima arrived and made the land fertile and well-irrigated again.  Unfortunately, the Spanish and then the Anglo-American settlers devastated this blissful scene by developing intensive irrigated agriculture, with increasingly severe water drafts.  As in the Aral Sea case, the Pima had been using the land carefully and sustainably, with drought-tolerant crops.  The early-day anthropologist Frank Russell and the contemporary botanist Amadeo Rea have provided possibly the best accounts of traditional small-scale plant and water management in the entire world (Rea 1983, 1997; Russell 1975).  Thus we have a solid baseline of knowledge here.  The Anglo-Americans planted a great deal of moncrop cotton.  Finally,

the Gila River went dry from Phoenix onward (Dobyns 1981; Rea 1983; Webb et al 2007).  The Pima were left high and very, very dry, in violation of treaties as well as common decency (Russell 1975).  Ironically, Phoenix takes its name from the Hohokam ruins.  The English developer and “character” Darrell Duppa, seeing huge ruins there, planned a city that would rise as the phoenix bird rose from its own ashes.  The settlers were better prophets than they knew.  The phoenix cyclically burns up and has to rise again.  We are about to witness the next fire.

An even more incredible part of the story of water mismanagement is the great beaver massacre.  Hats made of beaver-fur felt were the fad in 1820s England.  It is estimated that as many as a million beaver were taken out of the lower Colorado drainage (including the Gila drainage) in the early 19th century (see e.g. Hilfiker 1991; Pattie 1962 [1831]; Rea 1983).  The result was arroyo cutting, floods, and general disaster.  The Gila and its tributaries had been sluggish streams draining through vast beaver ponds, sloughs, and water meadows, with scattered trees growing from lush mesquite, rushes, grasses, and sedges (Rea 1983).  Much of the damage to Arizona’s hydrology and soils that has been blamed on overgrazing, climate change, and so forth was actually done by beaver trapping.  The beavers had controlled flooding by their thousands of dams.  The damage each year from flooding alone, let alone loss of water conservation, in Arizona is probably greater than the value of all the beaver skins.  There is now no going back; the rivers are dry and the land is urbanized.

Peter Skene Ogden was paid to wipe out the beaver totally in eastern Washington and Oregon, so as to deny the resource to American trappers (Ogden 1987 [1827]).  Of course the result was billions of dollars in damage every year in most years since, though at least the beavers are coming back in some of that area.  Similar things happened in Colorado’s Front Range (Wohl 2005).  And all this so some rich men could wear funny hats for a few years, until the style changed to sustainable silk.

Beavers are incredible water engineers (Hilfiker 1991; Morgan 1868). If people were as good at water management as beavers, there would be no world water problem.  The 18th-century French zoologist Charles Bonnet half-seriously and half-wistfully expected that evolution would produce beaver architects as great as Vauban, the leading architect in Bonnet’s time (Foucault 1971:153).

Lewis Henry Morgan, who invented modern anthropology, also in his spare time invented modern animal behavior studies.  He got interested in beavers and produced what is still the best monograph on their behavior (Morgan 1868).  Of course he did not fail to compare them to humans.  He pointed out that they are not very bright; instinct guides them.  Modern studies confirm this.  At least according to biologist folklore I have heard, biologist tested a beaver by playing the sound of running water.  The beaver carefully covered the sound-system speakers with mud.  This must have been cute to watch, but it certainly shows blind instinct rather than rational calculation.  Still, I have seen beavers show considerable ingenuity at working sticks into their dams.

The point is that simple beavers manage water infinitely better than smart but foolish humans.  Humans that make dams frequently make a bad job of it (Chamberlain 2008; Giles 2006; Scudder 2005; Stone 2008).  Ellen Wohl has done a particularly superb, sensitive, and historically sophisticated account of the superiority of beavers and the idiocy of humans in managing Colorado’s water (Wohl 2005).

The Aswan high dam brought schistosomiasis to all Egypt, wiped out the fisheries of the Nile and the eastern Mediterranean, and loses 25 to 40% of its water to evaporation (Chamberlain 2008:96). Most desert-country dams are similarly wasteful.  It is doubtful if any big dams in the Third World have positive cost-benefit accounts (Scudder 2005; W. Partridge, pers. comm.).  They drown good farmland, displace millions of farmers and other productive citizens, spread disease, waste water, and destroy fisheries.  The benefits they supply are often illusory, or confined to the rich.  Benefits of undammed water can range from 50 to 400 times as high as those from the same water, dammed (Katz 2006:41).  These are probably extreme cases, but, in the Third World, no clear cases of even slight advantages for big dams have been reported to balance them out.  In the First World, many dams are now clearly costly rather than beneficial, and many older and smaller dams are being removed.

The fashion for large dams owes everything to one man, John “Jack” Savage.  A Wisconsin farm boy who rose to become the world’s expert on dams, he designed the Hoover…, Grand Coulee, Parker, and Shasta Dams and the All American Canal system” (Sneddon 2015:29), and then went on to further designs and to world efforts when the “Cold War” between the US and the USSR made it expedient for the US to “help” other countries by building big dams (Sneddon 2015).  Fortunately, in those days the US had a conscience, so few of these were actually built; the social and economic costs were actually taken into account (as they have rarely been since).  Savage’s dams in the US were in fact seriously needed for flood control and irrigation, did not displace many people (none in most cases), and did not cause huge immediate effects (though the Colorado in Mexico was ultimately dried up).  The next great step in dambuilding was the TVA, far more ambitious, organized, and region-wide; it has had a mixed legacy.  It initially paid, in flood control, electricity generation, and transportation (allowing rivers-turned-lakes to bear heavy shipping traffic), but at current prices the value of the enormous amounts of prime farmland and world-class hardwood forests drowned would probably outweigh the benefits.

Unfortunately, the US found it expedient to design and build more and more dams, and many of the countries where the US pulled out found other backers to do the dubious work.  Thus vast numbers of countries now have huge dams inspired by US efforts, but not judged by US standards of cost-accounting.  Whether any of these dams are a benefit is a very open question.  The politics behind them, and the whole political economy of dams, is a complex and involved subject (Sneddon 2015).

Perhaps we should take the big dams out and bring the beavers back.  They have been reintroduced to Scotland—the first beavers in Britain since the 17th century.  The common name Beverly means “beaver meadow,” and was originally the name of an estate based on one such in England.  That estate now has no beavers.  Hopefully there will soon be as many real beverleys as girls bearing the name.

Fish, of course, suffer even more than beavers.  Wild salmon are now a rapidly disappearing resource everywhere except Alaska.  The steelhead runs of southern California are down to a few fish; the only one south of Los Angeles is in San Mateo Creek, and it was down to one female fish in a recent drought (Hovey 2001; this run will surely not survive the current droughts).  Many, if not most, of the freshwater fish, amphibia, and shellfish of America are threatened or endangered.  Caviare will soon be a thing of the past; fishing for it is out of control, and sturgeons are succumbing to pollution and dams even where they are not fished.  The only healthy sturgeon populations in the world are in the major rivers of the Pacific Northwest, and even here they are declining fast.  Aquatic birds are also declining fast.


However, anthropologists and other social scientists have recorded many success stories in water management around the world.  They reveal very clearly what is wrong with our system in the world today, and what we can do about it.

Most of the interesting work has revolved around questions of common property resource management.  Water, by its very nature, is usually owned in common.  One would think that it would be thus wasted, because people so often treat a common property resource as something to use without care—Garrett Hardin’s classic “tragedy of the commons” (Hardin 1968).  However, as Hardin saw (Hardin 1991), if a common resource is owned by the group as a corporate entity, and managed by them, it can be excellently managed and sustainably used.

Water is an open-access free good only in situations of extremely low and transient population.  Otherwise, water is almost always owned by communities—tribes, villages, cities, states.  In the ancient Near East, irrigation was life, and thus many excellent irrigation systems and methods were developed (Drower 1954—still an excellent source).  Mesopotamia had to build canals, some hundreds of miles long.  Egypt could simply wait for the Nile flood, but it varied from very low to very high.  The ideal was a 16-cubit rise as measured at Memphis.  There is “a Hellenistic statue of the Nile god in the Vatican” with 16 children, each 1 cubit high (Drower 1954:539).  Under 12 cubits—a cubit is about 32 cm—meant devastating famine; over 18 meant devastating flood.  Yet, normally, the Nile was reliable, and made canal irrigation necessary only in small, marginal areas.  In China, most agriculture was rainfed or fed by very local streams, but eventually—once the empire was established, and locally even before—large canal systems were developed to control whole river systems.

Governments and rulers worked out various bureaucratic systems for managing all this.  All had to have specialized water managers.  In sharp contrast to the famous “irrigation hypothesis” of Wittfogel, this rarely led to absolutism.  Irrigation has to be managed locally, and top-down control of anything except major basic canals merely interferes with necessary local decisions.  In Mesopotamia, China, and the Indian subcontinent, absolutism really came from conquest of irrigation societies by hordes sweeping down from rainfed or very locally irrigated areas.  In China, conquests and absolutism were more apt to come from nomadic herding societies.  In Egypt, absolutism developed within an irrigation society, but the pharaoh had little real control over the river.

In the Middle Ages and locally since then, lords owned streams and lakes, but they could be said to be owning them as feudal lords—that is, administrators—rather than as private citizens.  Recently, a drive to privatize water has allowed corporations, large and small, to control water sources as well as sales, but this is an unusual development from the point of view of history.  It is an exceedingly ominous development (Chamberlain 2008).  It often drives up the cost of water severalfold, while lowering availability.  If there were actual competition this might not be the case, but such schemes involve governments cutting deals with big firms to have local monopolies.  Corruption is endemic.  All the abuses of monopolies and mercantilism immediately surface.

Thus, water has been prudently maintained as a common-property good until now, even in the most capitalistic societies, and especially in the Middle East.  Water thus becomes a fascinating study.  Traditional and more recent Jewish spiritual attitudes toward water, and the world in general, have been introduced in the service of water management in a brilliant article by Aaron Wolf (2012).

Some of the most interesting researches on water in the Middle East refer to Muslim or Muslim-influenced local irrigation systems.  This is in large part because Muslim law, developed in arid lands, is quite specific about water.  Gary Chamberlain, synthesizing a number of sources, reports:  “Muslim law codes…forbid private ownership of water, at least in its natural state.  There is a hierarchy of uses…first is the right of thirst…no one can be denied the water necessary to drink…then all are allowed water for their daily needs of bathing, cleaning, cooking, and so forth.”

This is a priority partly because Islam enjoins cleanliness, making thorough washup and bathing a religious duty.  However, even ritual cleaning must not be wasteful.  Muhammad once saw his early follower Sa’ad “performing the ablutions…using a lot of water, he intervened, saying:  ‘What is this?  You are wasting water.’  Sa’ad replied asking: ‘Can there be wastefulness while performing the ablutions?’  To which God’s Messenger replied:  ‘Yes, even if you perform them on the bank of a rushing river.’”  (Cited Özdemir 2003:14.)

Then “next comes the right to provide water to livestock; and last comes the irrigation of crops, which consumes the most water.  Only when water has been placed in a vessel…is water considered a private good” (Chamberlain 2008:54).  “Water distribution has very clear-cut legislation in Islam.  In general terms its rules are based on the principle of benefiting all those who share its watercourse” (Dien 2003:116; details following).  The duty to provide water for livestock is taken very seriously, Islam having originated among desert travelers.  Accounts describe careful management of flocks at the wells, with the most water-needing animals drinking first.

This emphasis on common property led to intricate but efficient and enforceable common property regimes being established in Muslim lands.  The Muslims could build on earlier systems that were often extremely intricate and highly developed.  South Arabia—today’s Yemen—had a vast system involving a huge dam across the major wadi; this system died when weather patterns shifted, drying the wadi except for occasional damaging floods (Scarborough 2003).  The Nabatean system in the Negev Desert had harvested water by incredibly sophisticated means in Roman and pre-Roman times.

Most spectacular of all were the qanat systems of Iran and neighboring areas, including the slopes around Mesopotamia.  A qanat is a long tunnel dug back into an alluvial fan.  It is set at a very slight upward slope.  Water percolates in from the alluvial material, so the qanat produces a live stream that can be directed to irrigation.  Otherwise, the water would evaporate through the porous fan material and be lost.  Qanat systems extend east as far as west China (Xinjiang), where they are called karez.  Major innovations in qanat irrigation, dam-building, and integrated irrigation system engineering were made in Central Asia in the medieval period (Hill 2000).  This was a little-known golden age of engineering innovation, especially in systems design.  The Persians and Mongols introduced this technology to the western world, and it may lie behind some of our modern “systems thinking.”

The Arabs brought them to Spain, Italy, and elsewhere.  They grade into ordinary water tunnels that merely convey water to cities with minimal evaporation.  Qanat systems are maintained by local communities.  A fee is charged for the water.  Specialists maintain the water tunnels.  It is a dangerous job, since cave-ins are hard to prevent and generally fatal.

Arab systems survive everywhere in the Middle East and in much of North Africa.  I have observed them in Morocco, where they have blended over many centuries with indigenous, related Berber traditional systems.  The latter in turn may go back to the Roman Empire, when North Africa was a key part of the empire, producing agricultural products of all kinds.

Excellent systems survived till late.  The Arab irrigation systems of Yemen (Varisco 1996) and elsewhere are legendary.  Egypt’s superb irrigation system long predated the Arabs, having been developed in ancient Egypt (see Butzer 1976), but it was continued by the Arabs, later by the Ottomans (Mikhail 2011), and finally by independent Egypt, up until the extremely ill-advised Aswan Dam destroyed the old system.  Today, slow but sure salinization is adding to global warming, delta subsidence, and other ills.

The Arabs supplied Palermo, Sicily, through aqueducts cut into rock in the 9th and 10th centuries (Maurici 2006); these still supply Palermo today.  Sicily still uses them to irrigate crops, especially those the Arabs brought, such as lemons, sugarcane, eggplants, and high-quality melons (Pizzuto 2002).

In Spain, the “Reconquista” conquered Spain from the Moors after 800 years of Moorish rule.  Most of the Moors were expelled, to Spain’s permanent and major loss.  However, a few villages hung on in areas so remote that they could avoid exile by superficial conversion to Christianity.  The most significant of these for our purposes were in the Sierra de la Contraviesa area southeast of Grenada, studied by Gaston Remmers (1998) among others.  Remmers describes an incredibly sophisticated system for making sure that everybody has fair access to irrigation water, no matter how wet or dry the year.  The village social organization is based on water management.  (Spain has other successful irrigation systems without obvious Moorish ancestry, too; Grove and Rackham 2001, Guillet 2006.)  Another important study, from Morocco, was carried out by Hsain Ilaihine on the Ziz River (Ilaihine 2004).  It describes careful maintenance of canals and allocation of water in a dry drainage from the Atlas Mountains.  I have examined almost exactly similar systems above Marrakech.

Many of the Moors converted to Christianity but were not quite trusted, and were sent to remote parts of Mexico, where they could not do much damage by rebelling. Converted Moors and Spanish who learned from them gave us qanats in Tehuacan, where they flourish—or did when I was there in 1996—in the dry Tehuacan Valley.

From here they were introduced to San Bernardino, California, and until not long ago San Bernardino was supplied by this ancient Iranian technology. The ditch that brings water to Redlands, California, is still called “the Zanja” (the old Moorish term), and the city water manager is officially the Zanjero.

San Bernardino, the neighboring city, also benefited from ancient Chinese technology, via “Pedley dams,” huge sausage-shaped bundles of rocks done up in ropework (or wire) and used for instant levees.  Pedley was a 19th-century water engineer.  He had seen them in China, where they were invented in the far past.  (At least this is what locals told me when I was young.)

In New Mexico and extreme south Colorado, Arab systems flourish.  A local farmer turned anthropologist, Devon Peña, is not only studying them anthropologically but also using them to irrigate his own farm in a Hispanic community there.  He has used water management as a natural symbol, or entry point, for his excellent discussions of environmental justice (Peña 1998, 2000).

Perhaps the most remote extension is into Zuni Pueblo.  The famous waffle gardens of Zuni are indistinguishable to my eyes from those of Sicily, and are often used to grow the same crops (melons, cucumbers, etc.).  The Zuni are creative and brilliant gardeners and water engineers in their own right, and surely there is some parallel innovation here; one wonders if the Zuni gardens were influenced by conversos—converted Moors—in northern New Mexico.

Moorish systems also went to South America, where they fused with the ancient and formidably competent systems of the Quechua and Aymara.  The Incas and their predecessors in Peru had constructed canals up to dozens of miles long, through some of the harshest and most difficult country in the world.  They had terraced mountain slopes up to two miles high, and run irrigation systems throughout these terraces, perfectly controlling the flow of water on slopes up to 45% or so.  They had integrated water systems all the way from glacier snouts 18,000’ above sea level down to the edge of the Pacifc.  The Nazca, around 500 CE, constructed systems to tap groundwater, similar to Old World qanats, but with the added sophistication that they built spiral excavations that caused the wind to spin round, creating a low-pressure zone that brought water to the surface (see Proulx 2008).  These nonliterate people, with little metal, no wheeled vehicles, and limited animal power, had carried out some of the most spectacular water engineering jobs in the world.

Naturally, they quickly saw the value of metal tools and European draft animals.

They also saw the value of  Moorish technology and organization (Gelles 1995, 2000; Trawick 2001a, 2001b, 2002).  Traditional Quechua society is organized dualistically:  there is an uphill group and a downhill group, or some comparable split, in every village.  This has had a real but uncertain amount of influence from Moorish and Spanish customs.  The water hierarchy in a village is more clearly influenced by Moorish-Spanish usage, with water officials and titles similar to those elsewhere in the Hispanic world.  Each half of the village has its water organization, and the two must cooperate and distribute water fairly.  They tend to keep each other honest.  Also, typically, the two halves of the village are not really separated; plots belonging to members of the uphill half are scattered through the downhill side, and vice versa.  This is partly a matter of inheritance and marriage, but partly also a matter of geographic necessity.  Warm-weather crops have to be downhill, cold-weather crops uphill, in canyon villages.  Some villages have fields extend for a vertical mile, for instance in the Colca Valley, a canyon twice as deep as Grand Canyon (Gelles 2000).

Critical to the operation of the system are the fiestas.  Every village has, or had, its huge party, usually in the summer.  This brought everyone together and allowed everyone to have a good time.  It also allowed some working out of conflicts, because both sanctioned competitions and unsanctioned fights naturally occur at fiestas.  Occurring in a public, mostly happy gathering, such fights are quickly stopped and mediated.  This would not be the case if the fights occurred on a dark night out in the watershed.  Better have them in the open, at the fiesta.

The astonishing level of honesty in these village systems would certainly be devastating to any disciples of Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century Englishman who saw humans as individuals in permanent conflict.  Honesty depends on several factors.  First, the water managers are vigilant.  Second, neighbors too are vigilant.  However, all a water thief needs is a dark night and a spade.  It is very easy to turn the village canal into one’s own fields for a couple of hours.  This can help one’s own prospects greatly, but, of course, at the expense of others’.  Yet people rarely do it—intimidated not only by popular opinion and the revenge of gods and spirits, but also by their consciences.  Humans want to cooperate, and will sacrifice a lot to do so.

Paul Gelles’ village had to cooperate beyond usual levels back in the 1990s (Gelles 1995, 2000).  The Peruvian government built a water project that brought water to lowland cities, but, apparently inadvertently, preempted the water supply the village.  The town faced disaster.  So the most intrepid young men went out and tore a hole in the water project canal, directing the village’s proper flow back to it.  They did not wreck the whole project or the canal.  The government came with warrants and police, but the entire village stood up against them.  Arrests, threats, cajoling, and bureaucratic foot-dragging all failed.  The village got its water back.  Quite a few similar stories could be told, from Spain to New Mexico (see e.g. Chamberlain 2008).

Another system maintained by religious organization holds in Bali.  Stephen Lansing studied this system over many years (Lansing 1987, 1991, 2006).  Irrigation on that Indonesian island is derived from water coming from the crater lake at the top of the island, which is a single giant inactive volcano.  The water is sacred.  The head priest of the island, the jero gde, lives at the lake outlet, and oversees the water system.  Apparently he is appointed more for his hydrological expertise than for his religious devotions.  A hierarchy of priests, progressively farther and farther downstream, oversees the breakup of this stream into tens, hundreds, and finally tens of thousands of channels.  These feed a vast system of rice paddies; the island is one huge farm, growing mainly rice but also dozens of tropical crops.  Water is timed so that there is no one pulse of irrigation.  That would not only take too much water; it would allow insect pests to multiply out of control.  Instead, each field has its schedule of irrigating and drying off.  The World Bank came in with sophisticated technology in the late 1980s to improve this system, and promptly caused disaster.  Their computer-assisted plans led to water shortages, local floods, and insect outbreaks.  Control promptly went back to the jero gde.  Lansing modeled the traditional system with his own computers, and found it to be about as perfect as could be achieved in the real world.  (Criticisms of his scenario exist [Vayda 2008], but are sufficiently refuted by Lansing’s material.)

Similar, if less comprehensive and perfect, local systems of terracing and water control are well documented from elsewhere in Indonesia, as well as from the Philippines, pre-American Hawaii, New Guinea, and indeed most of Oceania and the rest of the montane tropical and subtropical world (Scarborough 2003).  Usually, religion is marshalled to help maintain them.  Often they are also maintained through kinship systems, as in Luzon and among the Toba Batak of Sumatera (studied by my former student, the late Richard Lando, in the 1970s).  Often they produce fish and other animal protein as well as staple plant foods.  India has countless religiously maintained irrigation systems too (a particularly superb account is by David Mosse, 2003, 2006).

The irrigation systems of south China are well known (the best descriptions are in Marks 1998 and Ruddle and Zhong 1988, but see also Anderson and Anderson 1973 and Wen and Pimentel 1986a, 1986b).  They too have religious representation, via the guardian spirits and gods of the localities involved, though they are largely secular concerns.  They are usually administered by village elders.

Typical in this area are lineage villages, where all males are related by direct descent from a single founding ancestor.  The lineage elders are then all kin.  Such villages can have thousands of people and be hundreds of years old.  They can thus manage irrigation on a substantial scale.  However, much more impressive were the vast water systems that the Imperial governments maintained.  The most famous was the one in the Chengdu Plain of Sichuan, designed by the Li family of engineers more than two thousand years ago.  Their advice—“keep the dykes low and the channels deep”—should be learned by every water manager.  They split the Min River into three channels, so that the river could be directed into two of the channels in order to allow local people to clear rocks and silt out of the other one to keep it deep.  This system has been maintained and repaired over the centuries, and is still in use.  A fine and very old temple to the Li engineers has survived even Communist abuses.

Where water fails, people are incredibly innovative about doing without it.  The Chinese of dry north China were as sophisticated in water harvest as the south Chinese were in water management, and many incredibly sophisticated techniques were known more than 2000 years ago (Anderson 1988).   We of western North America have a lot to learn.  Some of my colleagues at the University of California, Riverside proudly and helpfully told a group of West Africans, many years ago, that UCR had developed crops that could grow on 12 inches of rain.  The West Africans calmly answered that their crops grew on four inches of rain.  We of UCR thought we would be the teachers, but we became the learners.

Among Native Americans, the Tohono Oodham of Arizona also had crops that grew on four inches of rain.  They also shared with the West Africans a trick of following recent runoff channels, making fields in areas recently flooded.  By the time the water has dried up and the soil is dry, fast-growing crops have yielded a harvest.  The Hopi had varieties of maize that were planted a foot deep to take advantage of soil moisture.  The Hopi and most other traditional maize cultivators hilled up soil around the growing stalks, saving yet more water.  The ancient cultivators of the Muddy and Virgin River area of Nevada allocated and managed water carefully, maintaining a dense population without salination (Haines 2010); they were probably the ancestors of the Southern Paiute, who maintained successful intensive agriculture in that area well into the historic period.  Haines compares their water management with Near Eastern systems noted above.

This sort of agriculture did not develop in a laboratory.  Like other traditional, efficient management strategies for water, it required people to take water and crops very seriously.  It was religiously represented.  The Hopi, like almost all other Native American corn farmers, worshiped the maize god.  Saving water requires reverence for water, for the irrigation process, and for crops.  It will require planning based on respect for people and for water resources.

Common property management works in today’s world.  Elinor Ostrom (1990) studied water management in my home area, the Los Angeles basin.  She found that the dozens of cities sharing the basin had been forced to work together to manage the small rivers that provide water and carry away sewage.  I well recall the days when Riverside’s water was unsafe to drink and the city sewered into the Santa Ana River.  Orange County cities were richer and more powerful, however, and thus forced more and more treatment on Riverside, till its sewage is now safer than its drinking water used to be!

Without such powerful downstream users, however, upstream users can progressively degrade the water resource (Murphy 1967), and by ruining the downstream users they can de-fang their political power, and thus prevent any recourse from affecting them (Wilkinson 1992).  Elinor Ostrom also studied the Mojave River, just outside the Los Angeles Basin.  Here, powerful mining interests control the headwaters.  Next downriver are the relatively well-off towns of Hesperia and Victorville.  The river dies in the desert just past Barstow.  This unfortunate town, always poor, has become poorer and poorer as its water source is sucked away.  Having less and less political-economic clout, it progressively loses to the mines and the richer towns.  Barstow is slowly strangling to death.

Even people who do not plant or irrigate may have an important and valuable water ideology, religiously supported.  Katherine Metzo (2005) reports on the ideals of pure water among the indigenous peoples of the area around Lake Baikal in Siberia.  These ideals are now the main thing standing between this deepest and most copious of all lakes and its ruin by Russian pollution.


It is, indeed, hard to avoid worshiping water if one has any religious regard for nature.  One of the striking facts about humans is that, everywhere, they seem to honor and revere waterfalls.  Major falls are parks and pilgrimage spots in the United States and China and elsewhere.  Traditional small-scale societies everywhere seem to have worshiped them.  The Shuar (“Jivaro”) people of Ecuador and Peru call themselves the “people of the sacred waterfalls” (Harner 1972).  In my research in China and with Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest I found that these disparate peoples still have high religious regard for waterfalls, eddies, rapids, and other areas where the power of water is evident.  Native Americans often went on vision quests at such places.

The sheer force of the water at such points is hypnotizing.  One can stand looking in a sort of trance for minutes or even hours.  Lakes and deep pools, and above all the vast ocean, have a different kind of spiritual sense:  peaceful and calm, yet evidently extremely powerful.  The power is latent.  One knows that a storm or a break in a water barrier could unleash it at any moment.  Legends of lake monsters, maelstroms, and bottomless pools seem to express some of this feeling.  The Greek god Triton and the Roman Neptune are more explicit statements of it.  Yemaja, the mother goddess of the Yoruba of West Africa (and many of their descendants in Brazil), is a sea goddess and can be stormy at times.

The Chinese see the ocean not so much as a god but as a vast universe in which or on which gods, dragons, and other supernatural beings play.  The Chinese were aware from very early times of islands forming from deltas, and of fossil seashells on mountaintops, so they early developed a story that the seas and lands had changed places many times.  The seas had been mulberry fields, as they expressed it.  They were aware that life-giving rains came from the sea, and were all too aware that these could come in the wake of typhoons (ta fung, “great wind” or “striking wind” depending on what character is used). The Chinese thought that dragons caused these storms.  Some of my fishermen friends had seen dragons in the rolling, boiling stormclouds.  Indeed, in the dim light and driving rain of a typhoon, one can easily imagine one sees these giant reptilian beings riding the wild winds.

It is also hard to avoid seeing the contrast of land and water, or land and sea, as one of those basic dichotomies around which people love to organize their thought.  Claude Lévi-Strauss (1962, 1963, 1964-1972) discussed this in great detail.  Often, such dichotomies symbolize the dichotomy of male and female, which in turn may involve wife-giving and wife-accepting groups.  The Northwest Coast peoples contrasted land and sea, and many of their stories turn on progress from one to the other.  This can symbolize creation, or marriage, or a hero’s journey to wisdom, or tribal trade and interaction, or anything else involving such moving through landscapes.  Of course, salmon and other sea-run fish are the staple of subsistence there, and they run from fresh waters to the sea and then back again.

Animals that easily cross the boundary between water and land, like river otters, are sacred and powerful.  Otters are believed to lure humans to come into the water with them; the people then drown and are converted into otter-men, as scary to the Haida as werewolves were to medieval Europe.  The fear of otter-men (gagitx or “gogeet”) has actually spread to some Whites on Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands; I discovered this during my research there).  Otters are playful creatures, and do, in fact, try to lure humans into the water to play with them.  There is no mistaking their intent; they are as obvious about it as any puppy.  I have personally observed this several times.  I resisted the temptation.

Most powerful are those beings that can interact between water, land, and air:  the raven, eagle, and kingfisher (Jonaitis 1981).  The kingfisher nests in a burrow in the underground—or underworld, flies in the air, and fishes in the water.

Not only the Northwest Coast peoples attribute special power to anomalous creatures that are able to live in two different worlds.  It is a worldwide characteristic.  Consider the scary, uncanny nature of frogs, toads, and newts in Shakespeare.  African and South American peoples have similar attitudes toward lungfish.  And scientists show great fascination with the perfect intermediates between fish and land life-forms that have recently emerged from Chinese fossil beds.

Whales and porpoises are naturally uncanny, since they look and act like fish but breathe air and are obviously intelligent.  My fishermen friends on the Hong Kong waterfront would not touch them, for these reasons.  A recent fascinating book, Trying Leviathan by D. Graham Burnett (2007), tells of a trial in New York in 1818.  New York State enacted an inspection fee on fish oil.  Inevitably, a shrewd New York fish-oil dealer refused to pay on whale oil, since the whale had recently been declared by science to be a mammal.  This led to a trial.  The dealer called to witness the leading American ichthyologist, Samuel Mitchill, a genuinely great scientist.  However, the trial went against him, since it was pretty clear that the law had been intended to cover whale oil as well as other “fish” oils.  The law was, however, subsequently rewritten.

In any case, the controversy was not easy to settle.  This was long before Darwin, and there was really no obvious reason to privilege lungs and live birth over fins and aquatic lifestyle.  The trial played ordinary people, with their functional view of the world, over laboratory scientists, with their structural and abstract view.

The whale remains anomalous among water creatures.  Americans want to save whales because they are intelligent mammals.  Many Japanese still see whales as essentially fish, and see American attempts to stop whaling as an imposition on fish-eating peoples.  It is, however, worth noting that most Japanese will not touch whale meat any more, and the government has to store in freezers the whale meat its fleets bring home.


It would be very hard to imagine a moral or religious code that denied water to those dying of thirst.  Yet, modern governments do exactly that, by wasteful and corrupt development schemes, privatization of water, permitting contamination, displacement of impoverished people, and many other practices.

Gary Chamberlain (2008) reviews the status of water in all the world’s major religions, and finds that all of them are quite specific about enjoining us to treat water as a common good to share with all who need it.  Certainly, of all human needs, water is second in immediate importance only to oxygen.  Water is needed every day, in fairly large quantities, by every human.  It is needed directly for drinking and washing, indirectly in much greater quantities for food production and manufacturing.  It is irreplaceable; the economists’ notion of “infinite substitutability” breaks down totally here.  Water has to be reasonably pure to be useful—the purer the better.

This being the case, all religions have made a point of insisting that water be made available.  All seem, also, to have used it as a symbol.  Water is soft and flowing, yet wears away rock.  It is pure, yet can be contaminated.  It is meek and unprotesting and always ready to serve, yet it is arguably the most valuable thing in the world.  It is often ignored and devalued, yet is absolutely necessary to life—every faith seems to have made the obvious comparison with religion here!  Probably nothing else has been such a universally used symbol and metaphor, for so many things.  Rivers are goddesses in India, and had a human feminine form before they descended to earth.  (Chamberlain quotes a wonderful story of the sea and the Ganges on p. 17.)  In Indian art, rivers such as the Ganges, Narbada and other rivers are beautiful women in the prime of life.   Their long, flowing hair and supple bodies recall the flow of the rivers.  In Bangladesh, Islamic norms prevail, but local water culture involves much management and associated ideology about water (Hanchett et al. 2014).

Water is most notable in religion for its cleanness and its purifying qualities and for its tremendous power, but Zena Kamash (2008) has recently emphasized its terrifying aspects.  Floods, whirlpools and fast rivers kill countless people.  Religions recognize this, and pray for protection, but also see water and the water surface as liminal.  They are boundaries between life and death, and water is both lifegiver and deathbringer.  Kamash’s own work is on the Roman Empire, and from Anatolia to England she has found Roman shrines that link these two aspects.  She finds similarities elsewhere, and I certainly saw plenty of this in China, where my fishermen friends lived by the sea but often died by it.  They loved it and feared it.  Cultivators in land villages had a similar view of fresh water; it kept them alive and irrigated their crops, but floods were frequent, and killed millions by starvation as well as hundreds by direct drowning.  Temples took full note of this, and so did prayers and ceremonies.

Religions have also insisted on the moral necessity of giving water to those who need it. Chamberlain reviews a wide range of sources.  I have mentioned the most graphic—the Islamic injunctions—above.  Chamberlain goes on to give us a powerful call to renew our faiths, whatever they may be, and work to make water freely and universally available in today’s world.

Even if one is not religious, any concern for anything outside one’s own narrowest self-interest simply has to include concern for water.  Even one’s narrowest self-interest, in fact.  The future for all of us is bleak unless immediate action is taken on a global scale.

Indeed, we need to bring religion and ethics into the picture.  At the very least, we need to see that water is literally and figuratively the water of life.  Denying it is murder.  Polluting and wasting it are potential murder.  I doubt if anything short of a concerted effort by all religions will save the world from a water shortage that will be catastrophic beyond imagining.




Based on a talk at the Sharlot Hall Museum, Prescott, AZ, 2008; amended since.  Thanks to Sandy Lynch and Gary Chamberlain for help.





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“…On average, the water we use in our households is about 98 gallons a day, says a U.S. Geological Survey. The industrial goods we use — paper, cotton, clothes — that’s about another 44 gallons a day. But it takes more than 1,000 gallons of water a day per person to produce the food (and drinks) in the average U.S. diet, according to several sources. More than 53 gallons of water go into making 1 cup of orange juice, for example.

Just to get a sense of how much water goes into growing and processing what we eat, here’s a list of the water footprint for some common foods, via National Geographic:

A 1/3-pound burger requires 660 gallons of water. Most of this water is for producing beef (see below).

1 pound of beef requires 1,799 gallons of water, which includes irrigation of the grains and grasses in feed, plus water for drinking and processing.

1 slice of bread requires 11 gallons of water. Most of this water is for producing wheat (see below).

1 pound of wheat requires 132 gallons of water.

1 gallon of beer requires 68 gallons of water, or 19.8 gallons of water for 1 cup. Most of that water is for growing barley (see below).

1 pound of barley requires 198 gallons of water.

1 gallon of wine requires 1,008 gallons of water (mostly for growing the grapes), or 63.4 gallons of water for 1 cup.

1 apple requires 18 gallons of water. It takes 59.4 gallons of water to produce 1 cup of apple juice.

1 orange requires 13 gallons of water. It takes 53.1 gallons of water for 1 cup of orange juice.

1 pound of chicken requires 468 gallons of water.

1 pound of pork requires 576 gallons of water.1 pound of rice requires 449 gallons of water.

1 pound of sheep requires 731 gallons of water.

1 pound of goat requires 127 gallons of water.

1 pound of corn requires 108 gallons of water.

1 pound of soybeans requires 216 gallons of water.

1 pound of rice requires 449 gallons of water.

1 pound of potatoes requires 119 gallons of water.

1 egg requires 53 gallons of water.

1 gallon of milk requires 880 gallons of water, or 54.9 gallons of water for 1 cup. That includes water for raising and grazing cattle, and bottling and processing.

1 pound of cheese requires 600 gallons of water. On average it requires 1.2 gallons of milk to make 1 pound of cheese.

1 pound of chocolate requires 3,170 gallons of water.

1 pound of refined sugar requires 198 gallons of water.

1 gallon of tea requires 128 gallons of water, or 7.9 gallons of water for 1 cup.

1 gallon of coffee requires 880 gallons of water, or 37 gallons of water for 1 cup. ‘If everyone in the world drank a cup of coffee each morning, it would ‘cost’ about 32 trillion gallons of water a year,’ National Geographic notes” (Hallock 2014).


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