Tag Archives: Environmental ethics

The Lived Experience of Water

Recently released from UTP, The Wonder of Water: Lived Experience, Policy, and Practice is an edited collection that reminds us of our primordial belonging to and need for water – a relation so essential that it is often taken for granted in policy development and decision making. The chapters are written by some of the world’s leading phenomenological thinkers who tackle subjects from flow motions to urban river restoration.


Ingrid Leman Stefanovic

If you are like most people, you will have begun your day by brushing your teeth, flushing a toilet, washing your hands and face and, then, tea or coffee was probably a necessary part of your breakfast. As you moved through these morning activities, you will have taken for granted the fact that safe and secure water was ready and available.

For many of us in the developed world, that ready availability of water is accepted on a pre-thematic level: it is only when the water is turned off that we explicitly realize how vital it is to our existence. As others have said, try going three days without water to recognize its ontological value.

The Wonder of Water: Lived Experience, Policy, and Practice, brings together thinkers who are attuned to the fundamental importance of water to our embodied lives. They each hope to shed some light on the fact that our water policies and practices should be informed not simply by abstract principles but by that deep need that we each have, as beings composed 60% of water, of this basic, life-giving liquid.

Certainly, it is important that rational thinking and evidence-based science inform decisions and policy making around water. Many books on water ethics and water security do an excellent job at covering complex policy issues. However, The Wonder of Water uniquely argues that we need to ensure that the deeply personal, embodied, imaginative, ontological interpretations of the value of water equally inform policy conversations.

Consider, for instance, how every day the news media highlights the growing risks of climate change to our health and to the well-being of the planet. Fewer and fewer skeptics deny the anthropogenic causes of climate warming and, increasingly, there are calls for substantive policy change in favour of more sustainable lifestyle choices.

Whether manifested through more serious droughts or deadly floods or rising sea levels, the reality is, as UN Water pointed out in 2019, that “water is the primary medium through which we will feel the effects of climate change.” Moreover, “the world is on the brink of a deadly crisis, as the combination of water stress and climate change creates a dangerous outlook for children.”[1] UNICEF recounts the stories of 12-year-old Swapna who, after Cyclone Roanu hit Bangladesh, returned home to find her neighbourhood, including all the trees, gone; or how a father in Zimbabwe, struggling to feed his family after a severe drought, was forced to sell his daughter for a few goats. In Canada, we have whole communities operating on boil water advisories. And then there is the reality that every day, over 800 children die from preventable diseases caused by unsafe water and lack of sanitation.[2]

Our book is meant to remind us that each of these lives, and others like them, are at risk and, consequently, meaningful policy changes cannot wait. Climate deniers and environmental skeptics should be invited to look each of these children in the eyes and ask themselves whether these children’s everyday embodied pain and suffering do not matter. “Policies” and regulations affect real lives. They are not simply articles of debate for conferences or international meetings. Rather, the urgency of enacting water policies that are effective and comprehensive comes from the realization that individual lives, emotions, physical health, and happiness are affected by high-powered decisions that themselves must be meaningfully informed by the lived repercussions of those policy choices.

Certainly, environmental decision making should be informed by statistics and quantitative data. Our point is, however, that a different kind of thinking – one that is less calculative and more originative, discerning, and perhaps reflecting even a kind of poetic sensibility toward individual human experiences – needs to drive policy making.

So, Part One of the book aims to remind us of what the lived experience of water might mean, not only in terms of human priorities but also relating to non-human animals and the breathing planet. Part Two shows us how water defines place, not simply as a geographical location but as the embodied projection of human understanding of the world in which we find ourselves. Part Three offers examples of how policies and decisions arise in different communities that are informed by diverse practices and ethical perspectives. The book begins and ends with poetic reflections, reminding us that policies must be driven not only by calculation but by mindful, discerning commitment to our embodied, revered, existential experiences of water.

Overall, the book invites the reader to re-engage with the lived experience and wonder of water, not only because human rights demand safe water or the benefits outweigh the costs of providing water security, but because, simply put, without water, there is no life. This fact we can never take for granted.

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To read an excerpt from The Wonder of Water, click here.


Ingrid Leman Stefanovic is Dean of the Faculty of Environment and professor in the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University. She is also a professor emerita in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto.

[1] Please see https://www.unicef.org/wash/waterandclimate/

[2] Please see https://www.unicef.org/wash/