In the face of escalating climate disasters and the urgent need for sustainable solutions, Erica Gies, recipient of the esteemed Rachel Carson Award for Excellence in Environmental Journalism, embarks on a transformative exploration in her book, Water Always Wins. As the world grapples with the repercussions of increasingly severe floods and droughts, Gies unveils a profound truth: our conventional approaches to water management are not only inadequate but often exacerbate the very issues they intend to solve.

In this illuminating journey around the globe and throughout history, Gies introduces readers to the pioneering individuals driving what she terms the “Slow Water movement.” These visionaries pose a revolutionary question: What does water want? By delving into the inherent rhythms and desires of water, they challenge the prevailing notion of controlling it through concrete infrastructure. Instead, they advocate for a paradigm shift toward understanding and accommodating water’s natural inclinations within our human landscapes.

Through meticulous research and engaging storytelling, Gies sheds light on the essential role of water in shaping our world and offers hope for a more harmonious relationship between humanity and the planet’s most vital resource. Following, enjoy an excerpt from Water Always Wins.

Join us at Bioneers 2024 to hear Erica Gies speak on the slow water movement. 

So what does water want? Most modern humans have forgotten that water’s true nature is to flex with the rhythms of the earth, expanding and retreating in an eternal dance upon the land. In its liquid state, with sufficient quantity or gravity, water can rush across the land in torrential rivers or tumble in awe-inspiring waterfalls. But it is also inclined to linger to a degree that would shock most of us because our conventional infrastructure has erased so many of its slow phases, instead confining water and speeding it away. Slow stages are particularly prone to our disturbance because they tend to be in the flatter places—once floodplains and wetlands—where we are attracted to settle.

But when water stalls on the land, that’s when the magic happens, cycling water underground and providing habitat and food for many forms of life, including us. The key to greater resilience, say the water detectives, is to find ways to let water be water, to reclaim space for it to interact with the land. The innovative water management projects visited around the world all aim to slow water on land in some approximation of natural patterns. For that reason, I’ve come to think of this movement as “Slow Water.”

Like the Slow Food movement founded in Italy in the late twentieth century in opposition to fast food and all its ills, Slow Water approaches are bespoke: they work with local landscapes, climates, and cultures rather than try to control or change them. Slow Food aims to preserve local food cultures and to draw people’s attention to where their food comes from and how its production affects people and the environment. Similarly, Slow Water seeks to call out the ways in which speeding water off the land causes problems. Its goal is to restore natural slow phases to support local availability, flood control, carbon storage, and myriad forms of life. For many people who study water deeply, these values have become obvious.

Just as Slow Food is local, supporting local farmers and thereby protecting a region’s rural land from industrial development and reducing food’s shipping miles and carbon footprint, ideally, Slow Water is too. The engineered response to water scarcity has been to bring in more water from somewhere else. But desalinating water or transporting it long distances consumes a lot of energy: in California, for example, the giant pumps that push water southward from the Sacramento Delta are the state’s largest user of electricity. Withdrawing water from one basin and moving it to another can also deplete the donor ecosystem, or introduce invasive species to the receiver ecosystem.

Perhaps the biggest problem with bringing in water from somewhere else is that it imparts a false sense of security. When we live long distances from our water, we don’t understand the limits of that supply, so we’re less likely to conserve. We also don’t understand how the water we use supports its local ecosystem. By overexpanding human population and activities, especially where there isn’t enough local water, such as in the US Southwest, Southern California, or the Middle East, we make people and activities vulnerable to the water cycle, rather than resilient.

Slow Water is also in the spirit of the land ethic articulated by twentieth-century forester-turned-conservationist Aldo Leopold. It calls for us to treat soil, water, plants, and animals with respect and to strengthen our relationship with them because they are part of our communities and we have a moral responsibility to them. His hydrologist son, Luna Leopold, expanded these ideas into a water ethic that calls for “a reverence for rivers.” Both ethics express an interweaving of nurture and need: for nature to provide for us, we must care for it.

Aldo Leopold was inspired by older traditions. Kelsey Leonard is a Shinnecock citizen and assistant professor in the School of Environment, Resources, and Sustainability at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. As she explained to me and an audience of river researchers in an online talk in 2020, many Indigenous traditions don’t consider water to be a “what”—a commodity—but a “who.” Many Indigenous people not only believe that water is alive, but that it’s kin. “That type of orientation transforms the way in which we make decisions about how we might protect water,” she said. “Protect it in the way that you would protect your grandmother, your mother, your sister, your aunties.”

Such belief that natural things are alive, or have souls, including rivers, rocks, trees, animals—often called animism—is common in ancient thinking worldwide. Similar beliefs elsewhere include Bon, the precursor to Tibetan Buddhism, and Celtic and Norse beliefs in fairies and elves, the spirits of the grasslands and forest, still held today by many people. From this worldview comes the Indigenous water protectors’ rallying cry, “Water is life.”

In contrast, today’s dominant culture is rooted in an ideology of human supremacy: humans’ needs and wants—particularly privileged humans—are considered more important than other species’ right to exist. (The attitude of supremacy extends to “othering” certain people too.) This us-first stance hasn’t done humanity any favor. By focusing single-mindedly on servicing human needs, we ignore other interconnected entities in the systems we change, causing myriad unintended consequences, from climate change to the extinction of other species to water woes. It’s also a moral issue, as the Leopolds and Leonard point out: humans are not, in fact, more important than other beings. They, like us, have a right to exist.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Water Always Wins by Erica Gies, published by University of Chicago Press, 2023.

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