When I was growing up, my aunt taught me the phrase, “water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink”. It was actually from the poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The line captures the desperation of a thirsty sailor on a ship who is surrounded by salt water on all sides which he is unable to drink. It is a metaphor for how one who is surrounded by the plentiful may be denied it. In a sense, this is an apt metaphor for all humanity, surrounded as we are by around 70% of the world’s area by five great bodies of water, yet suffering a global water crisis now leading to mass thirst, hunger and desertification.
I won’t bother going over the endless statistics over the water shortage we are experiencing, including the numbers of people worldwide denied access to clean drinking water and the tremendous rate of fresh water consumption caused by rapacious demand. Fair and accurate reflections of reality these stats are, no doubt, but somehow they are easier to gloss over. In a world at the mercy of a tremendous engine of economic growth, we may often feel helplessly small in comparison. In our individual capacities, what can we do to stop such systemic waste?
Unfortunately, both the water issue and even the ideas to deal with it suffer from the same problem: the desacralization of the environment. Once we see water as merely a liquid meant to be consumed,we are held captive to a materialist view of reality. Whether water should be wasted or not is not determined by how much of a Divine gift it is but by whether its rate of consumption will constitute a threat to survival and our habitat.This is inherently a reactive approach. For most of human history, virtually every culture cherished water as the source of all life. Under that view, individual acts of waste would be rightly condemned as an abuse of God’s blessings, while a system-wide wastage would have been unthinkable.
Unfortunately, as I have stated previously, this materialist view of the environment has seeped into much of Muslim thinking. This is abundantly clear when I see how water is ‘used’ in Malaysia, for example. In a country where there is a tremendous bounty of rainfall, more so in one month than many countries receive in an entire year, there is a sad tendency to take this resource for granted. It pains me every time I go to the masjid here to pray, and see how the men perform their wudu. More often than not, they begin by turning the tap to full blast before taking their leisurely time to perform the ceremonial washing. Many do not bother to fully close the tap. They use on average the same amount for wudu as one would expect for a short shower. I can’t help but think to myself how tremendously wasteful this may all seem to the casual non-Muslim observer. What is worse is that this is in clear defiance to how our Prophet (pbuh) commanded us to be careful in our use of water in this sacred act. When he was asked, “Is there extravagance with water in ablution?”, he replied, “Yes, even if you were on the banks of a flowing river.” (Sunan ibn Majah 425)
Muslims have a long way to go on this issue. While I would love for us to approach the ideal of having a rainwater harvester on every roof, I would settle for us to begin by being thankful for every drop we receive from the Lord.