April 13, 2015 Society

Towards a New Water Culture

Water is such a basic requirement for survival, for humans and our natural environment. Indeed water shapes cultures. The way we manage (or mismanage) water defines the future of mankind. To paraphrase Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu:

“Watch your thoughts. They become words. Watch your words. They become deeds. Watch your deeds. They become habits. Watch your habits. They become Culture. Culture is everything.”

The way we perceive and talk about the value of water is at the heart of the relationship between water and culture – culture and water. For too long, we ignored this while defining new frameworks of national water legislation and international obligations. Going forward we have to be more explicit and outspoken about the value of water, as the basis for the implementation of sustainable water management. How we define, perceive and use the value of water defines how we develop innovative water solutions and create transformational water policies.

For a sustainable water world to become reality, we need to create a new water culture. A culture that clearly defines the ethics that underpin the responsibilities that come from a fundamentally different attitude to water. As culture is an inter-subjective phenomenon, it has to be developed by engaging all relevant stakeholders to get to a basis of “consent” and establish the related new patterns of behavior.

Whether it is the basic right of every individual (person or corporate) to have access to water in sufficient quantity and quality, or the basic principles of protection and replenishment of ecosystems and the natural environment, as corners stones of our water values, they have to be built up by the broad consent of all stakeholders. It is only then that our policies and legislation can further drive the establishment of new patterns of behavior that exemplify our new relationship to water.

A new water culture supports common approaches and a common language that connects diverse stakeholders. It is only on the basis of a common language that we can hope to start to address and overcome some of the most critical water issues. A common language whether at local, national or transboundary level, is also crucial to learn from one another, to share best practice, to overcome obstacles. Establishing a common language connects across sectors and across disciplines.

The European Water Framework Directive is a good example of a multi-country effort to find “consent” for both national and transnational water management. This needs to be scaled-up elsewhere. Such an approach, however, requires water management to be based on comprehensive data covering long periods of time and on continuous quality assessment. Having sufficient information available for all stakeholders is a critical element of building the new water culture.

The main problem linked to water management practice developed in moderate climatic conditions is applying it to regions with completely different environmental conditions. Throughout history urban development was strongly related to local water availability; today with enough energy we are able to supply water in regions where the natural water resources do not exist in sufficient quantity to support human activities and ecosystems. Ultimately, this leads to a continuously increasing conflict between population growth and water management (including virtual water for our nutrition).

Equally important, we must recognize that water is not only a consumable product that can be “bought” according to the financial capacity of the consumer, water is also a good we have to share with all stakeholders: humans, industry, agriculture and natural environment. The right to use water is limited by the “need for water”. We have to negotiate in society what the most beneficial way for water use is. This strongly depends upon water availability and the environmental situation.

Words are vital here. For example, lets stop using the word ‘wastewater’. It sends the wrong message and forms part of a past paradigm and culture. We can easily adopt the term ‘used water’, indicating that the water is used but also that it continues to have value and can be the source of further resources for future use.

The growing demand for innovative public water policies and regulations makes clear the need for a new water culture. These new policies and regulation place the value of water at their centre, and address the roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders. The Lisbon Charter on public water policy and regulation, recently adopted by the IWA, forms an excellent basis to support the development of a new water culture. The Lisbon Charter offers a vision for new policies and regulation that can be transformative in shaping sustainable water management.

The IWA stands ready to support national governments to use the Lisbon Charter to further inform and support the development of new public water policies and regulations.


Dr. Kroiss
was addressing the Ministerial Roundtable on Culture, Educsation and Capacity Development in the Water Sector  at the 7th World Water Forum

Helmut Kroiss

Professor Emeritus Vienna University of Technology, IWA Board Member, IWA Immediae Past President, Chair Nominations Committee