Rediscovering Our Water Culture Paths in the Mediterranean

“Much of the past water culture heritage has been left largely unexploited, resulting in neglect, deterioration and even loss of any potential remains”, writes Vangelis Constantianos, Executive Secretary of GWP Mediterranean in this blog.

Holding only 3% of the world’s freshwater resources and hosting 50% of the globe’s “water poor” population – counting to 180 out of its 460 million inhabitants – the Mediterranean is among the most arid regions of the world. (‘Water poor’ are those among our fellow citizens disposing less than 1000m3/person/year)

Yet, there are many more of its characteristics to make it exciting, but challenging too: gifted with natural beauty, diversity and fertility; a mosaic of civilizations, religions and ideas; with a fast growing population with increased urbanization trends in search of a better life; poverty, unemployment, gender disparities; unsustainable consumption over the last decades; high development pressures from tourism, industry and agriculture; rising energy needs; climate variability and change, desertification, pollution and biodiversity loss; etc. Lingering socio-political instability, escalating turbulence and war are encountered in some countries of the region.

Over millennia, each and every among the region’s civilizations have celebrated water as a vital substance integral to survival and development, an enduring symbol of life, rejuvenation, purity and hope; a common denominator of a shared heritage.

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Since antique times and through a range of practices, indigenous populations of the Mediterranean region have been utilizing rivers, springs, lakes, aquifers and rainwater for water collection, storage, distribution and flooding emergency responses. Such simple, functional and, yet, sophisticated practices were valorized and advanced by all civilizations, since all have been facing similar water-related limitations.

Improved through observation, experimentation, innovation and adaptation to local needs, practices often evolved to knowledgeable solutions supplying water to human settlements and cultivations: remnants of wells, pipelines, canals, aqueducts, cisterns, reservoirs, ponds, small scale dams and integrated systems do still survive – in the face of modern development sirens – scattered across the Mediterranean, forming a unique cultural compendium of centuries-long water management wisdom.

Yet, the pattern changed when our home tap got conveniently connected to a domestic water distribution system, and much of the past water culture heritage has been left largely unexploited, resulting in neglect, deterioration and even loss of any potential remains. The high value traditionally attributed to water has decreased, and though infrastructure and technology have been managing to provide solutions to our everyday practical needs and problems, they have not made us wiser and more responsible water users.

Understanding and truly appreciating the cultural, emotional and intellectual significance of water in our everyday life, will contribute towards a new, thoughtful, and urgently needed consumer’s water culture, in every possible scale. From leaving the tap running while taking a shower to mastering a river through dams’ building, our own choices make a difference for the future of the most valuable gift of life.

Experiencing cultural heritage related to water can help in this direction, as an everyday reminder to local communities and visitors: further to their sentimental and tradition-praising value, such cultural pieces often still contribute to the local water balance and small scale socioeconomic development. Astonishing examples from all around the region can be reviewed through the ‘Hydria Project’ on ‘Collection, Storage & Distribution of Water in Antiquity: Linking Ancient Wisdom to Modern Needs’ at www.hydriaproject.net.

For example, how many tourists have noticed the several traditional wells, fountains, cisterns and watermills scattered around the Greek island of Naxos, clear marks of a century long sophisticated water exploitation? How many do exactly know the practical value of the grandiose Larnaca aqueducts in the island of Cyprus that has long been facing water scarcity? How many appreciate the effort undertaken by the Bonifacio inhabitants in the island of Corsica who have been digging caves and wells up to 70 meters down the earth, to get access to the valuable groundwater? How many have visited the amazing Naples underground network of aqueducts and cisterns, dug stone by stone over thousands of years by Ancient Greeks and Romans? How many are aware of the story behind the Matfias, an originally collective community system developed in the Abda Valley, in Morocco, to tackle drought throughout the year in a simple and low-cost manner? How many do truly understand the pride that Timimoun oasis populations in Algeria find in the local foggara systems, these ingenious irrigation systems which find, however, themselves today in great danger and decline?

The Hydria Project is implemented by the Mediterranean Information Office for Environment, Culture and Sustainable Development (MIO-ECSDE) as part of the Mediterranean Education Initiative for Environment and Sustainability (MEdIES). The Global Water Partnership-Mediterranean (GWP-Med) supports and collaborates with MEdIES and the Hydria Project since their launching. Other supporters include the European Commission, UNESCO and the Anna Lindh Foundation.

Inset photo: “Relief depicting hydria carriers from the North Frieze of the Parthenon, circa 447-432 BC (New Acropolis Museum). The scene is part of the sacrificial procession of the Panathenaic festival that is sculptured all around the frieze.”

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About globalwaterpartnership

The Global Water Partnership's vision is for a water secure world. Our mission is to advance governance and management of water resources for sustainable and equitable development.
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