In Tibet, a 1,500-year-old culture exists that has ecologically sustained rural water sources (springs, mineral waters, lakes, and headwaters of rivers). This culture remains today, though it, and the water sources—which are necessary for drinking, washing, religious ritual, and to alleviate the symptoms of disease—are increasingly threatened by escalating development and are little known to the outside world. They are so little known, in fact, that my son Jon Otto—who has worked as a tour guide in the country for ten years—asked me why he didn't know the culture of these sites. The answer, he realized, was because he hadn't asked. This invisibility makes it easy for unchecked development—mining, lumbering, road construction, and other industry—to threaten the Tibetan watershed. Because Tibetans' water culture is inextricable from the water itself, if a source is lost to misuse or development, so is the culture. Yet the oral tradition and practical knowledge surrounding Tibetan water sources are not being recorded in the way that other aspects of the culture—dance, music, and language—habitually are.
This current plight of the Tibetan water culture mirrors the evolution that other countries underwent in the wake of industrialization. Gramercy Park in New York City, for example, was built around a natural spring—though it has since dried up due to a lack of available groundwater. The park is still used, but the spring is lost. Today, Tibetans are at the crossroads that all industrialized societies have faced: they are simultaneously losing their water sources and the traditions that have ecologically those sources, while facing an unprecedented influx of pollutants. They do not yet grasp the impact these will have on their un-renewable water sources.
I grasped the urgency of recording the changes occurring in Tibet when I traveled to Fei Shi (Jade Lake) in 1993 on a Jerome Fellowship. Fei Shi is a mineral water site twenty minutes from Song Pan in Northern Sichuan, which, though in use by the local Tibetan community for centuries, had been turned into a water-bottling facility by Chinese investors. As a result, the Tibetans were suddenly unmoored. The appearance of the bottling plant disconnected them from a water source that they had long preserved because they believed it was integral to the health and well being of their community. That is when I understood how the industrialized world became gradually disconnected from its water sources as it developed; I asked myself if it was possible to continue to evolve economically and culturally and retain an awareness of the sources of our water. Throughout the late 1990s to the present, I continued to visit water sources in the United States and China. I understood that by looking at cultures that still have a traditional practice that ecologically sustains their water sources, we can find innovative approaches to the urgent contemporary global issues of watershed conservation and rural economic development.
For the past 15 years, I have worked in integrated sustainable water systems design, which places water as the foundation for urban and rural development. I direct and participate in collaborative projects between artists, scientists, engineers, urban planners, and government officials that focus on sustainability—a built environment that preserves or restores the quality and quantity of water—which is the foundation of any ecosystem. For the past 13 years, I have worked on many award-winning projects in China: I created the Living Water Garden in Chengdu, the first urban park to demonstrate a seven-stage biological water cleaning process. This project initiated a national dialogue about wetlands, ecosystems, and sustainability. The Chengdu Urban Rivers Association (CURA), created in 2001 inspired by The Living Water Garden, focuses on cleaning the rural water systems that deliver water to the city of Chengdu. In 2003, I conceptualized a sustainable water system plan for the Beijing Olympic Forest Park.
reSources: Saving Living Systems, a Model for Sustainable Development, will be the first in-depth study of the Tibetan water culture, a record of its rapid changes, and my experience of these water sites. All people are affected by this threat to our irreplaceable water supply; it is my hope that this record will inspire changes in how we handle watershed conservation and rural economic development.