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Can language determine how we value water?

Published on:
  • Rivers and lakes
  • Wetland values, status and trends

This year’s World Water Day focuses on the value of water. But while scientific journals, policy frameworks and philosophical debates have explored and assessed the enormous and complex value for our households, food, culture, health, education and economics, the use of language in determining value is often overlooked. 

According to the celebrated writer and botanist, Robin Kimmerer, the English language, is insufficient at reflecting nature’s complexity. Indigenous languages in comparison are more encompassing. These languages empower their speakers to articulate the nuances, life-force and value beyond ecosystem benefits that help their people build strong bonds with nature.

To be a bay

For instance, in North America, the Potawatomi people of the Great Plains, note that “a bay is a noun only if the water is dead. When the bay is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word”. Instead of using a noun, they use the verb “wiikwegamaa” or “to be a bay” that recognises the agency of water. In other words, it is the water that decides to be a bay at the given point of time but may turn into a stream, a river or disappear if the place has become inhabitable to water. 

Expressing water as a subject with individual agency through language may not make sense to us when we have regarded it as noun or a thing all our lives, but the idea of nature as a living thing is finding greater traction. Following this approach can lead to a re-evaluation of our current understanding and relationship to water. Most prominently, New Zealand recognised the river, Te Awa Tupua, as a living being in 2017, followed by a nearby forest and mountain- granting all three entities all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person. 

A new relationship of mutual responsibility

Being a legal entity, the river Te Awa Tupua can now hold people accountable for the damages they caused, such as reverting its flow, extracting its bed and depleting its fish. The new legal status gives the river a voice and nature and its defenders, agency.

Next to legal accountability, the law recognises that water in all its shapes, whether it’s a wetland, a river or the sea, is alive. Valuing it as such instead of solely a resource requires a new relationship of mutual responsibility. Securing its future as a living entity — and ours — becomes imperative.

Interested to find out more?  

Wetland loss around the world contributes significantly to the climate and biodiversity global emergencies, and efforts to slow this deterioration and loss so far have failed to turn the tide. The Rights of Wetlands, supported by Wetlands International, looks to use a rights-based approach to address the global climate and biodiversity emergencies. Join us this World Water Day in valuing wetlands, the water resources in situ, to form a legislative basis that can help rebalance our relationship with nature.

Sign the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Wetlands here

Further reading 

Kimmerer, R. W. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.