Water Heritage

Water Heritage

Heritage Day is celebrated annually on 24 September in South Africa, particularly to celebrate and mark our nation’s diverse culture and heritage. Water is regarded as part of our heritage. We need to celebrate and highlight the importance of water for the planet, and hence, for our lives.

Celebrating water as heritage

A book “Water & Heritage: material, conceptual and spiritual connections” was published in 2015. The Director-General of UNESCO at that time, Irina Bokova who launched the book at the 7th World Water Forum in April 2015 in Daegu, Republic of Korea, wrote the following in the foreword:

“As a basic element of life, our relationship with water is complex, entailing material, and spiritual dimensions, and embodied in heritage that is both tangible and intangible. This relationship has always been a source of inspiration and a wellspring for innovation and creativity, leading us to think not only of the present, but also the future and the security of future generations.

UNESCO explored the relationship between water and heritage and the organisation helped to launch the theme of ‘Water and Cultural Diversity’ at the 3rd World Water Forum in March 2003 in Kyoto, Osaka, Japan, drawing on longstanding work across the natural, social, and human sciences, through the leadership of the International Hydrological Programme and the World Heritage Centre.

Initiated by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), Water and Heritage, material, conceptual and spiritual connections is associated with this collaboration. It tells the story of water heritage in all its diversity. It reveals the technical ingenuity that water heritage has always inspired, and it presents the challenges that this heritage faces, along with possible solutions. Reflecting the depth of cooperation between UNESCO and ICOMOS, this book was launched during the 7th World Water Forum in April 2015 in Daegu, Republic of Korea as a showcase of cooperation to increase dialogue on water heritage.”

In the book, Henk van Schaik, Michael van der Valk and Willem Willems describe water and heritage as:
“Water-related heritage can be considered an icon for the individual and combined paradigms that inform us why our ancestors chose or developed certain solutions (e.g., large dams, water wells, windmills) and why certain governance systems match certain geophysical, economic and cultural conditions. Studying water related heritage will guide us in assessing the long-term consequences of specific managerial strategies and their applicability in specific conditions. Water-related cultural heritage can indeed provide us with the means and insights by means of which we can better serve the needs of present populations and make informed choices concerning our future.

Numerous iconic examples of water-related natural and built heritage have brought together peoples of diverse origins. For instance, the Iguazu waterfalls on the border between Uruguay and Argentina, Roman aqueducts, qanats in Iran, the flying sand weir at the Dujiangyan Irrigation System in China, the Beemster polder in the Netherlands, the Niger River, and the garden pools in Udaipur, India. Heritage icons are present in all climates: arid and wet, in urban and rural settings, natural and built environments.

The development of water infrastructure is closely connected to human development. However, global development targets set in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs, 2000) and in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs, 2015) do not refer to the relevance of water-related cultural achievements. Although Goal 15 of the SDGs calls for the protection, restoration, and promotion of the sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainable management of forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation and put an end to biodiversity loss, implicitly supporting the protection of natural heritage, the protection of cultural heritage is not mentioned explicitly or implicitly in the SDGs.”

It is a fact that water is the most precious substance on earth and has unique properties that are required for life. Water gives life and is crucial to development all over the world. It waters the fields; nurtures the crops and stock; provides recreation; it supports mines, industry; electricity generation and it provide life for plants and animals that make up ecosystems.

Rainfall amounts to 110 000 cubic kilometres per year (km3/yr.). Through the global hydrological cycle, renewable water resources amount to 42 000 km3/yr. Of this, about 3 900 km3 is withdrawn for human uses from rivers and aquifers: some 2 710 km3 (70 percent) is for irrigation, 19 percent for industries and 11 percent for the municipal sector (FAO, 2011). With the doubling of the global irrigated area over the last 50 years, withdrawals for agriculture have been rising.

Water scarcity is one of the greatest challenges of the twenty-first century and Agriculture, encompassing crops, livestock, fisheries, aquaculture, and forestry, is both a cause and a victim of water scarcity. It accounts for 70% of the global water withdrawals. With the world’s population that is projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050 and as water stress spreads around the globe, ways must be found of getting more crop per drop to meet our food needs.
In South Africa we celebrated water in 1970 with a “Water year”.

The aim of this was a national action programme, concentrated between mid-February and mid November 1970, to:

  • Draw the attention of everybody in South Africa to the role of water in all aspects of living
  • Bring forward the image of water
  • Promote insight into the country’s water position
  • Encourage active and efficient utilization of water and steps against pollution of water, and steps against pollution of water; and
  • Offer the public the opportunity of demonstrating its solidarity with the ideals of this programme

The Water year was a big promotion campaign aimed at achieving a national water consciousness and conscience i.e., an informed public mind and an understanding of water.

The South African National Water act (Act 36 of 1998), dictates water must be protected, used, developed, conserved, managed, and controlled in a sustainable and equitable manner. According to the National Water Resource Strategy (DWA, 2013), South Africa is not well endowed with abundant freshwater resources. It is regarded as the 30th most water scarce country in the world. Research revealed that only 8% of our land area produces 50% of our surface run-off. Despite this major challenge, we have thus far done great in harnessing this resource in support of a strong economy and a vibrant society. This was and still is achieved through effective water resources planning, infrastructure development and effective service delivery. South Africa’s freshwater resources will be unable to sustain the current patterns of water use and discharge. It is estimated that the country’s total requirements for water use will double over the next 30 years.

Water is our heritage, and everyone need to value water, as each person need to reflect on the role of water in his/her daily life, thus valuing the importance it has and learning what water means for the planet, to be able to find the best solutions to ensure water conservation and protection.

Water & Heritage: material, conceptual and spiritual connections- edited by Willem J.H. Willems & Henk P.J. van Schaik. Published by Sidestone Press, Leiden, 2015. www.sidestone.com ISBN 978-90-8890-278-9

Department of Water Affairs (DWA), July 2013. National Water Resource Strategy 2 (NWRS2).


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