Let Water be Water

Dr. Udo Gößwald
7 min readSep 29


A well in Southern France, Photo: private

Thesis #8

Everyone is entitled to clean air and water and protection from harmful environmental influences, radiation that is hazardous to health and the consequences of global warming. Each person works to ensure that climate protection goals are implemented globally and personally contributes to wasting less food and reducing traffic and waste.

At the end of March 2023, 2000 Swiss senior women filed a complaint against Switzerland at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Since older people, especially women, the plaintiffs argue, are particularly at risk to their health from rising temperatures as a result of climate change, they believe Swiss authorities should do more to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement. The basis for the lawsuit, originally initiated by Greenpeace, is the right to life (Article 2) and the right to privacy (Article 8) of the European Convention on Human Rights. If the lawsuit is upheld, it could set out the legal process by which citizens in the 46 member states of the Council of Europe can sue for their rights in relation to the climate policies of individual countries.

The remarkable thing about this case is not only the possible legal-political consequences, but a holistic understanding of the world, which understands an individual disease symptom with possibly mortal consequences as a function of a climatological and meteorological phenomenon. The crucial point here is that nature is not an external sphere, but, rather, that all of its parts are independent organisms that unite to form a whole, but still retain their specific peculiarities in the physical sense. The German poet and naturalist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe described this aspect as early as 1832 in his Aphorisms on Nature: “The basic quality of living unity is: to divide, to unite, to flow into the general, to remain in the particular, to transform and, as the living can obviously take itself under a thousand different circumstances, to burst forth and disappear, to freeze and melt, to freeze and flow, to expand and contract. Since all these effects occur simultaneously at the same moment in time, anything and everything can happen at the same time. Coming into being and passing away, creating and destroying, in the same way; therefore the particular that occurs always appears as an image and analogy of the general.” This epistemological thought in relation to the mechanisms of action of nature leads to the insight that its individual elements can never be considered in isolation. And it is glaringly evident from weather extremes such as the increase in droughts and flash floods that humans are inevitably involved in this system. Thus, to talk about phenomena in nature is always to talk about us, as the Austrian-American nuclear physicist Fritjof Capra has noted.

According to recent studies published in the journal Nature Sustainability, by the end of the century one-third of the earth’s population could be living in regions where a decent life is no longer possible. German development geographer Lisa Schipper assumes “that these people — if they have the means — will try to relocate.” Sustained high temperatures lead to increased death rates, a reduction in cognitive abilities, crop failures, migration, regional conflicts, hate speech and the spread of contagious diseases. More and more, it seems as if the biblical plagues are upon us, that humans stand stunned before the mighty forces of nature and feel as if they are being driven out of paradise like Adam and Eve.

But which paradise is meant here? A paradise that promoted the ruthless exploitation of nature and man? A paradise that rewards those who destroy the environment and human health at the expense of others? It may be advisable to stop thinking of redemption or apocalypse in theological terms, as the German historian Philipp Blom recommends. For beyond Paradise, neither a punishing God nor a redeeming angel awaits us. At best, a new narrative awaits us about our dealings with nature, whose inheritance we are. And it will be our task to decipher this new narrative, from the manifold traces of interdependencies between the most diverse cycles of life and their infinite possibilities of coupling. “Even a river,” says Philipp Blom, “can be understood differently from this perspective: not as a demarcation between the countries on either bank, but as a transport route, a space for life cycles that often take place hundreds of kilometers along its course. The river connects and transports a barely comprehensible and far from tapped diversity of substances, information, animal and plant species, microbes, and histories, which through it create new contexts of life and new complexities, new kinds of unstable equilibrium.”

We will have to learn to listen to nature, to learn its language, and beyond our innate sensory capacity, to tap into resonant spaces that have hitherto remained hidden from us. This requires a sense for the “critical zones” — as Bruno Latour calls them — in our immediate environment, for all phenomena that threaten the fragile balance between a wide variety of living beings. “We are no less distant from nature than any other living being, even in the midst of cities. Our animal nature determines our essential needs: clean air, clean water, clean earth, clean energy. This led me to understand,” explains Canadian environmental activist David Suzuki, “that these four ‘sacred elements’ are created, purified and renewed by the web of life itself. If there were to be a fifth sacred element, it would be biodiversity. And whatever we do to these elements, we do directly to ourselves.” The dramatic increase in droughts, not only in the Horn of Africa, but also in the Po Valley of Italy, in southern Spain, or in Sichuan, China, have made us realize that water shortages are a serious global problem. Levels in the world’s largest reservoirs are falling continuously, and there is no reversal of this trend in sight. The reasons for this lie in the heat waves caused by climate change, but also in extensive water consumption by industrial plants that have settled in desert regions such as in Arizona. Dams are causing entire river courses to become deserted, such as the Colorado River, which has not reached the Gulf of California for a long time. Falling levels of smaller bodies of water are leading to species extinction and have resulted in an incredible 93% of river courses in Germany alone being ecologically out of kilter. Discharges of salts into the Oder River by Polish mining companies have led to excessive algae growth in the summer of 2022, causing a 50% decimation of fish populations. There are countless examples of this type of pollution around the world.

American biologist and hydrologist Brock Dolman has called the last 500 years the Age of Drainage. “The dominant paradigm of land use in North America for hundreds of years since colonization by settlers has been: kill the beavers, destroy the indigenous population, drain the wetlands, create drainage ditches, and dehydrate the land for settlements.” Humanity has now filled in or drained 87% of the world’s wetlands. Two-thirds of rivers are dammed or diverted. American environmental journalist Erica Gies therefore argues for a Slow Water Movement and a move away from over-regulation of river flows. She also points to the economic, physical and psychological effects of these misguided developments: “Uncertainty about the behavior and availability of water is destabilizing. Traumas triggered by flooding and water scarcity seem ubiquitous today. The landscapes in which we live are imprinted on our psyches and charged with personal and cultural meanings. When droughts and floods harm us or force us to move, we suffer loss: the loss of property and possessions, the loss of home and community, the loss of beloved landscapes and their distinctive species, weather, sounds and scents, the loss of quality of life. This melancholy is a feeling that haunts many of us today. But the same need not be our future.”

Those who — like Erica Gies in her book *— ask the audacious question “What does water want?” take a fundamental shift in perspective and look at the question from the point of view of what natural habitat water requires. It takes a step back from the “humans first” perspective and begins to understand that the key to building greater resilience to droughts and drought is to “allow water to be water, to reclaim land so that it can interact with the land… The true nature of freshwater is to adapt to the rhythm of the earth, expanding and retreating in an eternal dance on the land.” This means developing a different understanding of the needs of water not only for scientists, engineers, farmers and politicians, but that each person can ensure that freedom is restored to the natural course of water in the dehydrated lands in their region. This includes the reintroduction of beavers, which are as Dolan points out “semi-aquatic mammals with large teeth with just enough intelligence to slow, sink, distribute, store and share water. They are farmers who irrigate riparian areas because they are vegetarians. They eat the bark of trees, cattails, willows, sedges and grasses. They are engineers who build dams. They are masons who seal the dams. They are farmers who irrigate the riparian habitat food forests. They recharge groundwater. And they make wetlands less flammable. Their wetlands are famous for sequestering carbon. Wetland biodiversity is a biofilter that provides cleaner water and increases water quantity.” Much like the Slow Food Movement, which was founded in the late 20th century, a conscious approach to water opens up the possibility of restoring their natural habitat, befriending nature and feeling that we, as humans, are a part of the whole.

*All quotes by Erica Gies are taken from her wonderful book Water Always Wins: Thriving in an Age of Drought and Delute, Chicago University Press, 2023.

This essay is written complementary to Thesis #8 of our paper 48 Theses — How we can live together better, that you can find at https://48thesen.de/en/. This series will be continued. Further information about the author on my LinkedIn profile https://www.linkedin.com/in/dr-udo-g%C3%B6%C3%9Fwald-077a711a7/.



Dr. Udo Gößwald

Former museum director, now freelance writer and blogger