December 15, 2005
Preserve Water, Preserve Life
How Much is Too Much?
“Get out of the shower!” your little brother shouts
as he bangs on the washroom door. “You’ve been in there for twenty
The 20 minutes you spend in the shower, use up 400 litres of
water.2 The Prophet (pbuh) performed the ghusl, a complete bath, with one Sa’
of water—that’s just 1.6 litres. Abu Ja’far narrated,
“While I and my father were with Jabir bin ‘Abdullah,
some people asked him about taking a bath. He replied, ‘A Sa’ of water
is sufficient for you.’ A man said, ‘A Sa’ is not sufficient for
me.’ Jabir said, ‘A Sa was sufficient for one who had more hair
than you and was better than you [meaning the Prophet].”’ (Bukhari).
The Current Picture
You may ask, “How is that possible? Taking a shower in
six cups of water? The times sure have changed.” You’re right. The
times have changed—the problem of water scarcity is worse today than during
time of the Prophet (pbuh). The question of possibilities uncovers our passive
acceptance of the luxurious North American lifestyle. While the average Canadian
uses 335 litres of water per day, the average sub-Saharan African uses 10-20
litres per day.2 It may seem impossible for us in North American, but in today’s
world, the level of conservation practiced by the Prophet (pbuh) is necessary.
These statistics may explain why:
• Less than one half of one percent of all water on Earth
is fresh water for human use. The rest is sea water or frozen in polar ice caps.1
• 1.4 billion people, that’s 20% of the world’s population,
lack access to an adequate supply of clean drinking water.3
• Global water consumption is doubling every 20 years, more than twice
the rate of human population growth.1
• 31 countries currently face water scarcity.1
• Women in Africa and Asia walk, on average, 6 km each day to collect
• More than half the world’s major rivers are either polluted or
• In developing countries, water causes 80% of illnesses. Each year 3
to 4 million people die of waterborne diseases.2
• By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in conditions
of water shortage and one-third will live in absolute water scarcity.1
The problem is not the amount of water. The amount of water
on Earth remains constant—it doesn’t increase or decrease—and
there is enough to meet everyone’s needs. The problem is unequal access
Different regions of the world naturally hold different amounts
of fresh water. India, for example, holds 20% of the world’s population
but only 4% of its water.3 This natural division of water is easy for governments
to overcome with the right technology. The problem of water scarcity arises
when limited water is coupled with social inequalities and political agendas.
Who gets access to a region’s water and how they use it is usually determined
by who has power and money.
What we call man’s power over nature
turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with nature as
Water for Sale
Water is increasingly privatized by large transnational
corporations who own it and sell it like a commodity. Hungry for profit, these
corporations drive the price of water out of reach of poor people and deliver
it to those wealthy individuals and industries that can pay for it. Only the
wealthy who can install plumbing systems receive subsidized municipal water,
leaving the poorest in developing countries to pay the highest price for water.
In Lima, Peru, for example, poor people pay private vendors up to $3 per cubic
meter to collect contaminated water in buckets while the affluent pay 30 cents
per cubic meter for treated water that pours out of taps in their homes. In
India, some households spend 25% of their income on water. During drought, governments
often reserve water for the elite who can pay for it.1
Industries, also hungry for profit, require vast amounts of
water. It takes 400,000 litres of water to manufacture one car.2 Industries
purchase access to a region’s water at subsidized rates from the government.
Most of the world’s freshwater is naturally stored under the ground. Industries
pump this groundwater faster than it can replenish itself, causing the land
to collapse and permanently destroying its ability to store water. In the Arabian
Peninsula, groundwater use is three times greater than recharge and at current
rates of extraction, Saudi Arabia will reach total depletion in 50 years. In
developing countries, industries dump 75% of their untreated wastes into local
water bodies. When the environment is sufficiently damaged and water disappears,
industries move elsewhere, leaving a region’s residents in scarcity.1
The politics of power and money also determine which countries can secure water.
Since most rivers and groundwater aquifers cross national boundaries, future
conflicts in the world will likely involve water. In the early 1970s, Syria
and Iraq almost went to war over the waters of the Euphrates when Syria built
a dam at Tabaq, blocking a quarter of the River’s flow to Iraq. Ten African
countries share the waters of the Nile and each wants a share of the River.
To protect its Nile water supply, Egypt repeatedly threatens to use its size,
wealth and power go to war against Ethiopia, a country where water flows abundantly
but millions starve to death each year.3
Where Do We Fit In?
The problem of water scarcity is not confined to the developing
world. Its roots are connected to us and the way we live in North American.
North Americans are the worst hoarders of water. While millions go without water,
North Americans use 1,280 cubic meters of water per person every year; Europeans
use 694; Asians use 535; South Americans use 311 and Africans use 186.1
While North Americans can boast large water supplies—Canada
contains one quarter of the world’s freshwater—our extravagant habits
won’t save us from danger for long. Water levels in the Great Lakes reached
record lows in recent years. The Ogallala groundwater aquifer in the U.S. High
Plains is depleted eight times faster than nature can replenish it, causing
the land to drop at least a meter each year. Americans have dammed, diverted
and polluted the Colorado River until little or no water reaches its destination
The extravagances of our North American lifestyle—lawn
sprinklers, frequent car washes, sprawling golf courses, abundant swimming pools,
dripping taps, and toilets that consume 18 litres of water per flush—fool
us into believing we’re safe.1 They help us ignore the world’s water
crisis or accept it with a shrug. The principle of “We have so it let’s
use it now and think about the future later” prevails in most North American
Consider Las Vegas, a city that receives 3.8 inches of rainfall
in an average year—comparable to dry areas of Saudi Arabia and the Western
Sahara. This desert city sparkles and splashes with the idea that water is limitless.
The Hotel Luxor in Las Vegas boasts five-story waterfalls, shark tanks, a 1.3-million
gallon dolphin pool and a miniature Nile River with a boat ride. A full-sized
pirate ship sinks again and again into a man-made river that circles the Treasure
Island Hotel. The Hotel Bellagio stands beside an eight-acre fake lake with
hundreds of fountains spitting two hundred feet into the air. The city flaunts
colossal fountains, golf courses, man-made lakes, swimming pools, and even a
sailing club. According to Las Vegas Water Commissioner, Patricia Mulroy, each
acre-foot of “decorative water” in the city generates 30 million
dollars. Hence the saying, “Water flows uphill to money”.3
How Do We Respond?
We live in the world’s most technically
sophisticated society, yet we are now right back where we were three thousand
years ago, praying for rain.
Every person on the planet has a right to adequate water. The
Prophet (pbuh) said,
“People are co-owners in three things:
water, fire and pasture” (Abu Dawud).
Iyas Ibn Abd narrated that the Prophet (pbuh) forbade the
sale of excess water (Abu Dawud).
Ideally, basic water needed for survival should be free, equally
available to everyone and legally protected from waste and contamination. Current
global practices and policies are obviously unjust.
For Muslims, natural resources are a trust from Allah and we
are accountable for their care and use. The Prophet (pbuh) said,
“The world is green and beautiful and God has appointed
you as His stewards over it. He sees how you acquit yourselves…” (Muslim).
We are also responsible for halting injustices we see around
us, as the Quran outlines:
Let there arise out of you a band of people inviting to
all that is good, enjoining what is right, and forbidding what is wrong: They
are the ones to attain felicity (3:104).
Yet, as individuals we have little control over international
water politics and policies. How then should we respond to the global water
crisis? Here are ways to begin:
• Don’t lose hope—Although
the situation looks bleak, don’t let it depress you. The Quran tells us
Allah is the Creator of all things and He is guardian over
all things (39:62).
You and I are only responsible for making an effort. Allah takes
care of the results. He knows what’s best for us and He is the Most Just,
whether that justice comes in this life or in the next.
• Be grateful—Allah granted North
Americans an abundant supply of fresh, clean water without any effort from us.
Allah asks us in the Quran,
Have you considered the water which you drink? Is it you
that send it down from the clouds, or are We the senders? If We pleased, We
would have made it salty; why do you not then give thanks? (56:68-70).
Say: Have ye thought: If (all) your water were to disappear
into the earth, who then could bring you gushing water? (67:30).
Water is not simply “there” and it doesn’t
“fall by itself”. As we read in numerous verses of the Quran, Allah
“sends down water from the sky”. Allah is the only one that can
continue our supply of water and if He wishes, He can remove it any time.
• Get involved— Raise awareness
among your friends and family. Participate in efforts, such as letter-writing
campaigns, to lobby the government over its international decisions. Join conservation
groups in your area that protect local water sources. Many organizations look
for volunteers to clean-up river-banks, monitor water quality, or educate school
• Change your habits—Although we
can’t always control the actions of governments, we can control our own
use of water. Allah rewards us for every step we take towards change. Resist
the North American habit to overuse and waste water. The Quran tells us:
…Do not squander (your wealth) wastefully. Surely
the squanderers are the fellows of the Devils (17:26).
Eat and drink, but waste not by excess, for Allah loves
not the wasters. (7:31).
Just because we have abundant water, doesn’t mean we should
use it. The Prophet (pbuh) made this clear when he said,
“Excess in the use of water is forbidden, even if
you have the resources of a whole river” (Tirmidhi).
Begin to fulfill your trust and responsibility towards Allah
by conserving the water you use at home.
Ten Easy Ways You Can Conserve Water
- Don’t use your
toilet as a wastebasket or flush it unnecessarily. Toilets consume a quarter
of our municipal water supply and use 40% more water than needed.2
- Turn off the tap
when you brush your teeth or soap dishes.
- Keep a bottle of
drinking water in the fridge. Don’t run your tap for cold water.
- Run your dishwasher
and washing machine only when they are full.
- Check pipes and
faucets for leaks and get them fixed. Many homes lose more water from leaky
taps than they need for cooking and drinking.2
- Install low-flow
shower heads and flow-restrictors on faucets. A 5-minute shower with a standard
shower head uses 100 litres of water while a low-flow shower head uses 35
litres of water.2
- Water your lawn
every third day or less and water during the cool times of the day.
- Sweep patios and
sidewalks, don’t hose them.
- Limit pesticides
on your lawn to prevent them from reaching our water supply.
- Drive less! It
takes approximately 10 litres of water to produce a litre of gasoline. 2
It is He [Allah] who has placed you as viceroys of the Earth
and has exalted some of you in rank above others, that He may try you by that
which He has given you. Surely your Lord is quick in prosecution, and He is
most surely the Forgiving, the Merciful (Quran, 6:165).
Resources for Further Study
Abdel Haleem, M.A.S. (1998). Water in the Quran. In H. Abdel
Haleem (Ed.), Islam and the Environment (pp. 103-117). London: Ta-Ha Publishers.
1- Barlow, Maude. (2002). Blue Gold. Toronto: Stoddart Publishing.
2- Environment Canada Freshwater Website: http://www.ec.gc.ca/water/e_main.html.
Postel, Sandra. Facing Water Scarcity. In L.R. Brown et al.
(Ed.), State of the World 1993 (pp. 22-41). World Watch Institute.
3- Ward, Diane R. (2002). Water Wars. New York: Riverhead Books.