Cultural values of water

The often-intangible nature of some sociocultural values attributed to water regularly defies any attempt at quantification but, nevertheless, can be regarded amongst the highest values.
Unidentified woman wash herself in the river Ganga  in the holy city of Varanasi, India
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Last update: March 22, 2021

Culture directly influences how the values of water are perceived, derived and used. Therefore, the perception of the values attributed to water and its related benefits can be highly subjective.

For any values, it is extremely important to understand the cultural background under which they arise and how culture influences how they are used. 

The values of water to human well-being extend well beyond its role in supporting life-sustaining functions, and include mental health, spiritual well-being, emotional balance and happiness.
For example, water in landscapes has aesthetic values that contribute to mental health.

Unsurprisingly, life satisfaction and happiness depend to a great extent on water: water can appeal to people for spiritual reasons, or through scenic beauty, because of its importance for wildlife or recreation, among others.
Water plays an important role also across faith-based traditions worldwide, symbolizing elements as diverse as life, purity, renewal and reconciliation, but also chaos and destruction. In some, water is seen as a gift for humans to care for, whilst others embrace a view that accentuates water’s importance for the environment and wildlife. The connection between water and place, often categorized as ‘relational values’, can be strong in many indigenous cultures. 

The fate of humans and water is inextricably linked. In the words of the Whanganui River Tribe's proverb, ‘Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au’ - I am the river, the river is me
Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO
Audrey Azoulay Director-General of UNESCO

Water is also contributing factor to the conflict, as the source of contention but a spirit of dialogue helps to transform water-related conflicts into cooperation. 

Water, therefore, can at times act as a conflict indicator, and/or as connector to support conflict resolution and peacebuilding.

A fundamental need is the full and effective gender-sensitive participation of all stakeholders in decision-making, allowing everyone to express their own values in their own way. 

Water is often also a prominent component of heritage values, through both tangible and intangible benefits

These values can be problematic to compare with values derived through other formal means, such as economics, and are therefore often excluded from value assessments that favour those.

Courtyard of the Myrtles (Patio de los Arrayanes) in La Alhambra, Granada, Spain