Ritual bathing in India's Ganges River. Photo by judepics via Flickr
In southeastern Bangladesh, people tell of a lake near the spot where a very devout Muslim man was buried. In the old days, they say, golden utensils would magically emerge at a certain time each year from its waters. But one year, a villager stole one of the utensils. After that, no more precious items ever came from the lake again.
Bengali culture sees water as "an enforcer of moral codes," says Dr. Suzanne Hanchett, an American anthropologist who has worked extensively in Bangladesh. "It produces wealth, but it can respond negatively to moral wrongdoing."
Many cultures have historically shared similar ideas about the importance of collectively respecting water's power -- beliefs that can be tapped in the service of environmental protection. When the British first started building dams on the Ganges River in the 1800s, for example, protests by Hindu holy men who believed that free-flowing water was necessary for their faith's purifying rituals succeeded in keeping parts of the river unobstructed.
Is Selling Water Haram (Forbidden)?
Religion also provide powerful arguments for public ownership of water, a potentially controversial topic at the 5th World Water Forum, an event criticized for promoting privatization. During a discussion period at a panel on "Cultural Diversity: Key to Water Sustainability," audience members debated the meaning of a hadith, or saying of Mohammed, declaring that water cannot be sold because it is the common property of all.
Similarly, the belief of many Indians that they should come at least once in their lifetimes to the Ganges to wash away their sins and worship the river goddess has helped preserve public access to its waters, which can be entered from some 150 points.
Faucets for performing ritual ablutions outside the Ayasofya in Istanbul. Photo by arteunporro via Flickr
But traditional beliefs about water, if not properly understood, can also stand in the way of addressing some of our current health and environmental problems, panelists said.
In many rural Bengali villages, water is drawn from two sources, an "outside" and "inside" pond, both fed by rainwater. The outer pond, which tends to be cleaner, is reserved for use by men. Women have to go to the dirtier inner pond for their bathing and cleaning needs. When they are menstruating or have just given birth, women are seen as impure and the shame of this drives them to seek out even more remote, and often more contaminated, water sources to bath in privately.
'Clean' Vs. 'Pure' Water
The use of water as a purifying substance, both physically and spiritually, is common to many major religions, from the Christian baptism ceremony to the ritual ablutions (washing of hands, face, and feet) that Muslims perform before their five daily prayers. But in many belief systems, "pure" and "clean" are not exactly interchangeable. Water's religious significance is so strong that bathing even in dirty water can still make a believer pure. In these cultural contexts, a program to simply try and educate people to stay away from polluted water will have little chance of success.
During the pilgrimage to the Ganges, "it is important to live along the river and interact with it as much as possible, to brush your teeth in it, to wash your utensils in it," says Kelly Alley, a professor of anthropology at Auburn University. "People know that they are waste-water drains running into the river, but that doesn't change their commitment to bathing in it."
More Coverage Of The 5th World Water Forum
What is this 'Big Water Meeting'? Day 1 at the World Water Forum
Linking Water, Conflict, Gender, and Migration: Day 2 at the World Water Forum
Accounting for Every Drop: Day 3 at the World Water Forum
Images of Inundation: Day 4 at the World Water Forum
More On Religion And The Environment
British Charity Launches Climate Change Green Guide for Muslims
Rabbis, Sheiks, Lamas and Missionaries See Green Eye to Eye at Israel's Sulha
Green Your Mosque, Learn Imams in Israel
Eco-Rabbi Jack Reichert Talks Green God Shop
Explore the Hebrew Holiday of Shavuot and the Environment With Heschel Centers' Webinar
The Green Bible. No Really, The Green Bible.
Pilgrims' Plague Destroying Himalayas
Going Green on Palm Sunday with 'Eco-Palms'
Evangelical and Muslim Youth Find Common Ground On Earth Day
Bishop Takes Climate Principles To The Doors of Wittenberg
Religion and the Environment