Life as animated water – a film-maker’s view

A ceremony on the River Ganges at Varanasi, India. Image: Lewis Goetz on Unsplash

The producer of award-winning Netflix documentary Brave Blue World, Paul O’Callaghan, spends his days working with people and organisations addressing global water challenges. Here he reflects on our spiritual and historical relationships with water.

Ever since the launch of Brave Blue World, the question comes up, 'So, what next?'

I went walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain this summer to give that question some thought. I started to think about which documentary films have I not only learnt things from, but which truly changed me. The one that stood out, was My Octopus Teacher.

Having watched it, I no longer eat octopus, because of the empathic relationship the lead protagonist developed with a sentient being. And although it was not my relationship, I related to it and that had an impact on me. When I tell people this story, almost everyone has the same reaction, 'Me too!’

That got me thinking about how to tell an intimate story about the human relationship with water, one that puts us at the centre of it, about who we are, where we come from, and what we believe in. It is said that water is life, but equally, life is animated water. One of the roots for the word water is the Sanskrit 'apah', meaning to animate. This has survived in modern Irish where the word for river is abhann.

This is certainly how it is experienced by people who have had transformative experiences addressing global water challenges, including combatting deteriorating water quality, addressing water scarcity, providing global access to water and sanitation, dealing with the problem of too much water and the food and water nexus. There is no single solution to any one of these challenges, there are a thousand solutions.

But solving any of them starts with valuing water. That is the fundamental challenge, everything else flows from there.

Human civilisations grew up on the banks of rivers and our sense of identity and place is often linked to the world's great rivers. If you are Indian, you identify with the Ganges, the Indus and the Bramiputra.

View of the Yangtze River at Three Gorges Dam. Image: Dong Zhang on Unsplash

In Chinese culture the Yellow River (Huáng hé), the Yangtse and the Pearl (Zhujiang) play central roles. If you are from Colombia, it is the Magdalena river. Rivers are living entities with beautiful stories, personalities, a link between our past and our future.

This is why the Drinkable Rivers movement, led by the charismatic activist Li An Pho is gaining strong currency and a hold on our imagination. It carries a positive message to love and care for our rivers that strikes at the heart of our relationship with these critical water bodies.

There is nothing not to like about this idea. In the hyper-local world of water, it is a unifying idea that citizens all around the world can embrace and act on.

In terms of other unifying elements of the human relationship with water, in all of the world’s great belief systems, water plays a central role. Whether you are a Hindu, a Jain, a Baptist or a Jew, follow the teachings of Islam or practice Buddhism, water plays a central role in origin stories and creation myths, rights and rituals, purification and rebirth and the journey to the afterlife.

Norwegian writer Terje Tvedt provides perhaps the most in depth overview of this in his fascinating book Water and Society.

He says, “the physical water environment is often conceived of as a holy and cosmological landscape, invested with divine meanings, where the profane is interwoven with the sacred. Rivers, or bodies of water, for example, often have the role of marking the end of the profane and the start of the divine journey”.

“The physical water environment is often conceived of as a holy and cosmological landscape, invested with divine meanings, where the profane is interwoven with the sacred."

Terje Tvedt, author

In the Qur’an metaphors about water are frequently used to symbolise the afterlife in Paradise. There are frequent references to cooling rivers, fresh rain and fountains of flavoured water in the gardens of Paradise. Water is the essence of the gardens of Paradise. The believers were to be rewarded with ‘rivers of un-stagnant water’ Qur’an 47:15

In Hinduism the river provides the mythical path leading to Nirvana, which is why the ashes of the dead should be scattered in a holy river.

In Sri Lankan Buddhism, merely to look at water was considered to be cleansing. In many religions, bathing symbolises rebirth; it is a method of renouncing one’s former self.

Moreover, the nature of the water in our environment has shaped our philosophical thought. In Hinduism and Buddhism there is no ultimate destruction of dissolution, it is a continuous cycle of creation, dissolution, and recreation from the dissolved condition.

The whole cycle in these religions resembles the seasonal pattern of birth and destruction that has been characteristic of monsoon Asia, where the floods have tended to be very destructive, setting land under water for weeks and months on end, but at the same time being very necessary to ensuring that the land is fertile at the start of the next growing season.

The entire cultural, political and philosophical history of the China can be seen through the lens of water, as Philip Ball outlines in The Water Kingdom - A Secret History of China. The fitness rule was deemed to go hand in hand with the ability to manage water in a land where the rivers could be so unruly as to have been given names such as China’s Sorrow and the Scourge of the Sons of Han.

"Water is the highest good."

Lao Tzu, philosopher

Alok Jha reminds us in The Water Book that the Chinese symbol for 'political order' is made up of the characters for 'river' and 'dyke' and the meaning is clear, whoever controls water controls society. Control of water allowed empires to grow on previously unprecedented scales.

"Water is the only natural substance in which we have invested so much culture and holiness," he writes. "The human relationship to water is complex, multi-dimensional and like a fractal, infinitely more intricate the closer you look. Water courses through us, our societies and our planet."

‘Water is the highest good,’ wrote Lao Tzu in the Dao de Jing, the foundational work of Daoism. He also said, 'There is nothing softer and weaker than water. And yet there is nothing better for attacking hard and strong things.'

“Water. Oh Water!” wrote Confucius rather cryptically, leaving it up to others to interpret what he meant.

Joseph Needham a British historian known for his research and writing on the history of Chinese science and technology, said, ‘the whole of Chinese theoretical thought came to be permeated by certain ideas proper to the control of watercourses, so important a feature of the civilisation’.

In ancient Chinese philosophy, the concepts of Yin and Yang have a relationship with water as Ball describes: There is a particularly beautiful aspect of the yin/yang dialectic the runs though Chinese thought and artistic expression, namely the contrast of the mountains and water, shan and shui. The (male) mountains are permanent, symbolising space; (female) waters is changeable, a symbol of time. Mountains rise, waters descend. But they are symbiotic: rivers begin in mountains and they are sculptors of mountains. In this way, shan and shui can represent the entire cosmos.’

Rivers are sculptors of mountains. Image: Gleb Lucky on Unsplash

In present day China, the concepts of sponge cities and ecopuncture, a whole systems approach to architecture and design, borrow upon ancient wisdom. One advocate, Dr Yu Kongjian has made it his life’s work to help persuade Chinese leaders to return to this more natural way of dealing with water in the urban setting.

All over the world people are re-examining our historic relationship with water as a source of inspiration to divine a pathway through our current water challenges. The pre-Incan canals called amunas, which ensured a year-round supply of water for Machu Pichu, are being restored to help provide water for modern day Lima.

The replenishment of groundwater aquifers with reused water in Orange County, California, is reminiscent of the qanats built by the Persians all along the Silk Road, as a way to harvest renewable groundwater resources sustainably. The use of digital and satellite data to manage rainwater harvesting in Talking Tanks in Melbourne, Australia, combines digital internet-of-things technology with the practices of rainwater capture that go back as far as the lost Indian City of Dhoilavara in the Indus Valley, first occupied over 4,500 years ago.

If we reorient our cultures and belief systems as flowing from water, we identify with water in a very different way. We become empathic to it in a way that is rooted in a deep sense of self and a sense of place.

Following the interlinking transformational journeys of protagonists around the world that tie together a rich cultural, historic and personal narrative may be equivalent to a My Octopus Teacher for water. I am already enjoying the journey myself.

Water is life. And life is animated water.

About the author

Dr Paul O'Callaghan travelled the world to identify technological solutions to the water crisis for the Brave Blue World documentary, which is available on Netflix. He advises global water utilities and Fortune 500 companies on their water strategies through his company BlueTech Research.