What is water?

In my doctoral research I dive into water. But what are we actually talking about when we speak of water; what is water? I can imagine a river, a lake or an ocean, rain or the liquid that pours from the shower, that fills the bottles I take with me every day, or the pool I swim in. Or it is simply the famous H2O?

It can be discussed as waves and circulations or according to its phase transitions and appearances. Imaginations can expand endlessly along flows of water. I seek for modes of imagining ‘water’ as its material self, within its ‘ecology’ and with its specific intrinsic qualities, features and capacities, as a thing that shapes and is shaped by human and nonhuman engagement with it. How is water imagined socially and lived by culturally? How do those social imaginaries shape water? And what is water if we see it apart from everything else?

Incontrovertibly, water is one of the most omnipresent and essential parts of life and the world that we humans, other animals and all beings and things inhabit. Everyone, human and nonhuman, is dependent on it in terms of both quality and quantity for survival. It is the sine qua non of life, in endless and dynamic manifestations of oceans, rivers, lakes, ponds, rain, snow, ice, body sweat, tears, etcetera. All these manifestations of water nourish the endless variety of life-forms and interconnected ecosystems on earth. Water permeates and constitutes all micro and macro organic cells and beings, including humankind: our bodies consist of around sixty percent of water.

Seventy percent of the earth’s surface is covered with water, but even in the driest places on earth, water is present. All organisms are adapted to the ecosystem they live in, which also means that their anatomy is adapted to the availability of water qualities and quantities. But still, the molecules of every living cell are water-based and even the hardest cactuses or lizards need a drop. Although water exists on its own, as a material object, it cannot be seen without these ecosystems and life-forms that depend on it. Vice versa, water does also depend on these ecosystems, life forms and other external factors like the climate for its continuous flow, meandering, evaporation, waves, freezing, melting, and so on. Not only does half of every organism exist of water and does each living cell contain it, vice versa, every waterscape and even every drop of water contains different minerals and micro-organisms too. In short, water is vital for the emergence, existence and continuation of life on earth and for all its interconnected ecological processes.

Not only is water fundamental in biophysical life, its absence is also unthinkable in human social and cultural life. Imaginaries, discourses, meanings and knowledge systems are revolving around or are attached to water. For example, water is seen as a controllable resource that can be used for human benefit, an unpredictable life-threat in which one can drown, and as the embodiment of spiritual and religious entities across cultures. As a physical object, moreover, we humans both share water with and we withhold it from other humans, other animals, plants, and landscapes. As water is unequally distributed within and between human societies, as it flows through infrastructures with certain technological designs, that are built within certain power structures, water induces and reproduces inequalities and power hierarchies with regard to access and rights to water. In short, people perceive and relate to the object of water, and simultaneously water and water interventions induce and reproduce relations between humans. This is not saying that the ecological, social and cultural spheres of water are separated from each other. Rather, they are interconnected through the material of water and it can form the bridge between them. Precisely because of water’s biophysical and ecological characteristics and vitality water’s manifestations, qualities and quantities provide and mediate infinite social relations, evocations, meanings and metaphors across cultures, social contexts, and disciplines.

If water is so vital for both ecological and human socio-cultural life – and this is not something new, nor disputed or unheard-of – then why do we humans harm water, and thereby our own and other bodies, in such multiple ways and on such a large scale? Oceans and rivers are overfished and overloaded with plastic and other toxic wastes of human production; waterscapes and communities are harmed by the consequences of large hydraulic infrastructures; industries use and contaminate immense amounts of water; we build wind mill parks in the sea and drill for oil offshore; we drastically change water- and landscapes and the ecosystem with water technology and management. These are only some of the ways in which we treat water badly and thereby also harm human and nonhuman bodies. According to Neimanis, water issues seep through most of the “ecologically fraught questions” of the twenty-first century.

“The way we live in the world is bound to what we imagine the world to be”, stresses Tiitsman. In other words, the way we imagine water affects our ways of dealing with it. If I then consider that water permeates and constitutes all life on earth, I believe that the way we imagine water affects our way of dealing with the ecology and the world, human and nonhuman, at large. This brings me to wonder: what kind of imagining underlies the way we treat water, and thereby the ecology? And vice versa, how does water, in its material self and with its unique characteristics and flows, shape our styles and tropes of thinking about the world?

These and other questions I try to answer in my PhD research.