Is It Time to Incorporate Islamic Water Management Principles (IWMP) into Existing Global Water Governance Policies?

  • Sustainable water management is an important issue especially for local cultures and religions, such as Islam
  • Despite the presence of international  water management principles, issues of equity and justice are mostly not addressed in practice particularly in local settings.
  • The integration of IWMP into existing global water governance principles in Islamic-dominated countries, might help address issues of equity and justice.

Water is one of the pressing global concerns of the 21st century. Despite the presence of international water laws and management principles, issues of equity and justice are often not addressed in practice, particularly in local settings. This has significant implications for shared river basin management, as well as water services to vulnerable populations and different local cultures and religions such as Islam. Water has a central role in Islam and it is of utmost importance in densely populated regions, such as the Middle East and Middle East North Africa (MENA). For example, water is mentioned more than 63 times  in the Koran. Some Islamic scholars explain that the various forms of precipitation have been cited more than 100 times including the verse: “And we created from water every living thing”. In Islam, water is managed by Islamic law, Sharia. In fact,

the Arabic term ‘Sharia or Shari’ah’ means irrigation source or a “path that leads to the source of water”.

There are two basic Sharia concepts related to water rights in Islam: ‘shafa’ the right of thirst, which establishes the most fundamental right of human beings to quench their thirst and that of their animals’; and the ‘shirb’ which is the right of irrigating lands. Similar to everyday practices, Islamic water law gives priority to human and domestic use of water, then to animals, agriculture, industrial and recreational activities respectively. However, these two basic regulations of Sharia are interpreted differently by various Islamic Schools and implemented in various ways, taking the geographical, social, ethical, and cultural aspects of the Muslim communities into consideration.

Regardless of the differences in implementation of ‘shafa and shirb’ in different Muslim-dominated countries, Islam advises its followers how to live in peace and harmony with each other and the ecosystem. Islamic principles assert that the ecosystem belongs to Allah (God), who entrusted it to human beings, and the earth dwellers are responsible to pass it to future generations. This Islamic doctrine is fully in line with the sustainable and equitable use of natural resources such as water.

In fact, Islamic water management principles (IWMP), e.g., the principles of protecting the nature, equal distribution of water among users, treating each other equally (avoiding conflict), to name a few, are in line with the codified International water law principles (IWLP). It particularly supports the most important norms of international water law which posit: ‘equitable and reasonable use of the shared water resources’ by the riparians, ‘commitment for cooperation’, ‘avoiding significant harm’ and ‘protection of ecosystem and the international watercourse’. Based on these principles, riparian states must cooperate with each other to manage, utilize and preserve the shared water resources. As stated earlier, this principle is also reflected by the IWMP, which state that humans ought to treat one another equally, including equality in opportunities and co-operation.  

Additionally, three out of four principles of “The Dublin Statement (1) Fresh water is finite and vulnerable, (2) water development based on participatory approach, (3) the productive role of women in water management are in line with the IWMP. For instance, the verse, “Say: If your stream be some morning lost (in the underground earth, refereeing to fresh water), who then can supply you with clear flowing water?”(67:30) refers to the scarce nature of fresh water on earth. Moreover, Islam recognizes women as the main actors and preservers of water resources. During the Abbasid period, for example, Zubaidah, wife of Al-Rashid, acted as the project manager of a water canal in Mecca. While doing the pilgrimage in 808 A.C., she noticed how pilgrims were struggling for water. She called engineers and labourers to construct a canal to transfer water from the Ein Hanin Spring to Mecca. Upon completion of the project, the canal was named after her, Ein Zubaidah, illustrating how actively women are engaged in water resources management through a participatory approach.

However, the fourth principle of the Dublin Statement which says, “Water is an economic good” contradicts IWMP. Webb and Iskandarani contend that religions such as Islam prohibit water distribution through market forces. In fact, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) stated, “water is the common entitlement of Muslim communities”, hence, lakes and rivers cannot be sold. Islam opposes privatization of natural resources, e.g. water. The Islam considers water as the common entitlement of society, so it can be neither bought nor sold. This is because, according to Islamic teachings, Allah (God) created the ecosystem and gifted it to human beings. Humans are the overseers of the ecosystem and other common resources which belong to the society. So, no individual basically owns it.

Considering the dramatic climatic changes along with the increase in population, it is important to revisit the need to incorporate elements of local cultures and religions in water management frameworks and principles. Accordingly, the incorporation of the Islamic Water Management Principles into existing international water governance principles have potential to contribute to sustainable and equitable water access and water distribution within and among Islam-dominated countries, many of which are suffering from severe water shortages. Thus, such alignment may aid efforts towards the human right to water. Although the issue of equity and justice (eg human right to water) as well as sustainable water resource management in Islamic countries might be ambitious as of yet, incorporating IWMP, and international water management principles into water management instruments can be one pillar towards achieving this goal.       

Najibullah is from Afghanistan where he used to work as Flood Risk Manager to the Water Resources Department at the Ministry of Energy and Water. He is currently doing a joint master program in Water Policy and Management at Oregon State University, USA, UNESCO-IHE (Institute for Water Education), the Netherlands and UN mandated University for PEACE, Costa Rica.

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