This article will appear as the introduction in the forthcoming Fetzer Institute and Wilson Center publication,
Our Shared Future: Environmental Pathways to Peace, based on an event cosponsored at the Wilson Center in January 2009.
It is fitting to say “welcome,” since this timeless greeting originally meant “come to the well.” Let me try to describe the well we are coming to. We are at once trying to gather the best experience and thinking of current environmental practice, to help advance the issue of water as a resource, and to use environmental work around water as a case study for the lessons and challenges of global community engagement. In convening leading practitioners and thinkers in the field of environmental peace-building and focusing on the ever-present issue of water, we hope to surface the strengths of human resources and how they impact the emerging global community.
In truth, the issues that bring us here have been present in the human condition forever. They are spoken to in every tradition. A few stories will help create a context for our time together.
If we turn to the Hindu tradition, we learn that Saraswati is the goddess of knowledge, music, and the arts. Her name means “the one who flows” and legend has it that she was born of the Saraswati River, which is an invisible river that carries the waters that sustain all life. From the earliest times, in many traditions, the waters that sustain all life refer to both natural resources and human and spiritual resources; actual water and the water we have come to know since the beginning of time as wisdom and love.
In Hindu lore, Saraswati’s ageless counterpart on earth is the serpent-demon, Vritrassura, who is driven to hoard all the Earth’s water. And so the endless struggle begins; at least this is one tradition’s beginning. Thankfully, in the Rig-Veda, the sacred collection of Sanskrit hymns, we are given hope as Saraswati – with help from her brother Ganesh, the provider and remover of obstacles, and Indra, the god who connects all things – kills the demon who would hoard the Earth’s water.
But clearly, throughout the ages, those who would carry the water and those who would hoard the water have appeared again and again and again. This is why we are here. Unspoken or not, unaware or not, we are by care and kinship of the lineage that would carry the water.
If we turn to the Haitian tradition, we find a very telling teaching story called The Chief of the Well. This story speaks of a time of drought when the streams are dry and the wells are parched. There is no place to get water. The animals meet to discuss the situation and decide to ask God for help. God creates a well that will have endless water as long as one of the animals serves as caretaker and welcomes all who would come in need. The lizard Mabouya volunteers. But intoxicated with his newfound power, Mabouya becomes a gatekeeper, not a caretaker, and sends everyone in need away. Eventually, God replaces the lizard with the frog who croaks to all, “Come! This is God’s well! The hole in the ground is yours, but the water belongs to God.” And we are left, in each generation, to discover what is ours and what is God’s, and to understand what turns the caretaker in us to the gatekeeper?
If we can accept our role as caretakers of resources that outlive us, then the history of the acequia might be relevant. An acequia (a-sā’kē-e) is a community-operated waterway used for irrigation. It is the name for a sluiceway or gravity chute that flows down a mountainside, providing water for a village. The Spanish word acequia, which means “ditch or canal,” comes from the Arabic al saqiya, which means “water conduit.” The Islamic occupation of Spain, beginning late in the eighth century, brought this technique of irrigation to Spain.
Acequias were then brought to the Americas by the Spanish, only to find their indigenous counterparts already in use. Particularly in the Andes, northern Mexico, and the modern-day American Southwest, acequias exist as the outgrowth of ancient systems created to carry snow runoff or river water to villages and distant fields. Many South American villages have settled around the mouth of an acequia that begins high and out of sight in the crags of a mountain. There, the source-water collects all winter near the top and, in spring, with the thaw, it streams into the village.
In many of these South American villages, as in Peru for example, there is an annual ritual in which an entire village climbs the acequia in early spring to clear the rocks and tree limbs and snake nests that during the winter have blocked the path of water that the village depends on. This ancient pragmatic ritual of clearing the acequia provides a powerful model for how community can care for its natural resources together.
In fact, keeping the acequia clear and flowing is a useful metaphor for interdependence and cooperation. The life of the acequia and our responsibility to keep its path of flow clear represents a cycle of natural and human erosion and cleansing that is intrinsic to life on earth. Therefore, keeping the acequia clear – both the actual acequia and the acequia of humanity – bears learning how to do well.
With all this in mind, I am drawn to lift up one more story. It comes from Éliane Ubalijoro, a professor at McGill University in Montreal, who as a Rwandan is working with the generation there orphaned by the genocide. After the mass killings, those surviving were confined to refugee camps. In this particular settlement, women had to cross a dark field outside of the camp and risk being raped to get water for their children, which they did repeatedly. This difficult situation points to the complex levels of the issues before us; all of which demand our attention.
First, we might consider access to the water itself. With regard to the conservation and preservation of natural resources, we are asked to solve the perennial question: How do you bring the water to those who need it? At this level, a direct solution might be to move the water supply inside the refugee camp.
Under this, however, we might consider access to the human resources. What is blocking the human acequia? With regard to conflict transformation and peace-building, we are compelled to ask: What are the values implicit in this situation by which the refugee camp guards put the water outside of the camp in the first place in order to create the opportunity to rape the women?
This leads to the work of education, the work of clearing the human acequia. So with regard to the development of social equity, we are now compelled to ask: What are the assumptions and traditions in this community that enable them to believe that exploiting women is not only permissible but entitled? How do we clear the human acequia so that wisdom and compassion can flow?
Finally, we might consider the conservation and preservation of human resources. For at the heart of this insidious atrocity is the resilience and courage and love of these women who went into the dark to get water for their children knowing the violation that awaited them. What kind of deep water is this and how can we insure access to this resource?
This story from Rwanda is one more example that shows how natural resources and human resources are inextricably linked. One central question before us is: How do we tend all levels at once? How do we develop multiple strategies? How do we convene and surface the wisdom of all frames?
Part of our inquiry here is to take our turn in trying to understand how natural resources and human resources are so linked. What blocks their access? What lets them flow together and sustain life? How do we understand the water of humanity and the water of the earth and how both kinds of water are shared or not in the world today?
We could say that knowledge flows like water between countries and communities. If this is so, then each of you is such water. We are here to drink from you and people like you, and to understand the currents that run between us and beneath us; to insure the clear flow of natural and human resources into the world; and to keep the global acequia clear; to embody and to further the art and science of carrying the water in all its forms to those who need it.
Mark Nepo is the author of The Book of Awakening as well as the forthcoming As Far As the Heart Can See.
Photo Credit: Adapted from “The Water Carrier,” courtesy of flickr user Portrait Artist – Enzie Shahmiri.