What is the most widespread substance on Earth after air? Many amongst us will vote for love. But, if we want to be pragmatic, we have to conclude on water. 

Equally vital to the poor, the ordinary and the better off, water is an integral part of each and every among the world’s cultures. Over millennia, an enduring symbol of life, rejuvenation, purity and hope, it stands through its uses and abuses among the common denominators of our shared global heritage.

The Mediterranean is among the most arid regions in the world. Hosting more than 50% of the world’s ‘water poor’ population1, translating to 180 out of its 460 million inhabitants, the region holds only 3% of the world’s freshwater resources. And, it contains the ingredients to be an exciting region: gifted with natural beauty, diversity and fertility; a melting pot of civilizations, religions and ideas; with a fast growing population, that over the last decades consumes unsustainably, and has moved to urban centers in search of a better life; encountering high developmental pressures particularly in the coast, including from tourist, industry and agriculture; witnessing climate variability and change, desertification, pollution and biodiversity loss; going today through a deep social and economic crisis, on all its shores.

Since antiquity, rivers, springs, lakes, aquifers and rainwater were exploited through simple, functional and, in many occasions, sophisticated practices. Out of indigenous wisdom, these were versed to local needs adapting to hydrogeological and climatic conditions. Observation, experimentation and innovation resulted to knowledge and this was translated to solutions supplying water to human settlements and cultivations over centuries. Water collection, storage, distribution and flooding emergency responses were cross fertilized between civilizations, adapted to needs and evolved. Wells, pipelines, canals, aqueducts, cisterns, reservoirs, ponds, small scale dams as well as integrated systems to support cities and rural areas are among the remnants surviving today, scattered across the Mediterranean, forming a unique cultural mosaic.

But, needs and patterns have changed along with the convenience of opening our home tap connected to a domestic water distribution system. As a consequence, many of these pieces of cultural heritage are not sufficiently valorized today, resulting in deterioration and loss. Their potential remains neglected and largely unexploited, while there are many opportunities for them to add to the local water balance or, where relevant, contribute to socio-economic development, i.e. by being tourism attractions.

Showcases are endless and of different scales.2 Many may be surprised to learn that the 7th century BC holistic water management in Gheris oasis and the Figuig oasis in Morocco are still in use; the 6th century BC underground aqueduct of Eupalinos at Samos Island, Greece, a masterpiece of hydraulic engineering, is a tourist attraction today; the three so called ‘Solomon’s Pools’ south of Bethlehem were built around mid-2nd century BC and served as the main reservoirs of a complex system providing water to Jerusalem until 1967; the elaborate water supply system of Carthage, Tunisia, that was fully developed during the Roman period is part of tourist attractions today; the 2nd century integrated system of rainwater harvesting through dams and reservoirs in Crete (Zakros), Greece, continues inspiring local water conservation practices; the Roman pond in Al Husun town, Jordan, is still in use today after renovation; the Roman cisterns for collecting rainwater on Ventotene Island, Italy, are visited today; some of the late medieval Water Galleries in Malta, storing ground water are still in use today.

Sustainable solutions to current water challenges accounting for the needs of people and nature will be achieved only by placing higher value on this infinitive resource. Technology may solve most of our practical problems, but it won’t make us wiser users. Understanding the cultural and practical significance of water in our everyday life including its emotional, intellectual and moral aspects, will contribute towards a new and urgently needed consumer water culture. From leaving the tap running when brushing our teeth to deciding the diversion of a river, it is our thoughtful choices each day that will make the difference for wisely using the most valuable gift of life.

Vangelis Constantianos
Vangelis Constantianos

Vangelis Constantianos is the Executive Secretary of the Global Water Partnership – Mediterranean (www.gwpmed.org), a leading multi-stakeholder platform to promote integrated water resources management across the region. Coca-Cola and GWP-Med are working since 2008 to restore and innovate rainwater harvesting systems and other non-conventional water technologies in the water-scarce countries of Greece, Cyprus and Malta. Vangelis used to travel a lot, often carrying his history books. Then, his twin daughters came. Travelling turned less and books collect dust. However, he became more conscious of why tangibles and intangibles of our heritage are important to be handed over and this is what he tries to do each day.

1 ‘Water poor’ are those among our fellow citizens disposing less than 1000m3/person/year

2 Documentation of these and more cases can be reviewed through the ‘Hydria Project’ on ‘Collection, Storage & Distribution of Water in Antiquity: Linking Ancient Wisdom to Modern Needs’, implemented by MIO-ECSDE/MEdIES and supported by EU, GWP-Med, UNESCO and the Anna Lindh Foundation: www.hydriaproject.net