Journal of Water Resource and Protection, 2013, 5, 34-39 Published Online April 2013 (
Raising Awareness about Water Issues: The Role of Water
Symbolism and Proverbs
Joško Sindik1, Yoseph Negusse Araya2
1Department of Mathematical Modelling and Biostatistics, Institute for Anthropological Research, Zagreb, Croatia
2Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies, Birkbeck College, University of London, London, UK
Received February 5, 2013; revised March 7, 2013; accepted March 20, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Joško Sindik, Yoseph Negusse Araya. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons At-
tribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is prop-
erly cited.
Sustainable water management is one of the global grand challenges of our time. Tackling this challenge through cor-
rective actions would require the participation of the general public, a public with sound awareness of the challenge and
commitment. One such awareness raising intervention could be through the use of water symbolism and proverbs, tar-
geted to particular society. Water has the different symbolism and levels of importance to people, depending of their
personal characteristics and socio-demographic factors (e.g. gender, age, occupation, residence). Similarly, water prov-
erbs can also demonstrate attitudes towards water among communities, ethnic groups and whole nations. Such mean-
ings and symbolism could help determine attitude and be a powerful tool towards education. In this context, we de-
scribe and propose a psychological Health Belief Model (HBM) as a way to explain behaviour and stimulate sustainable
water management practice.
Keywords: Health Behavior; Health Belief Model; Water Proverbs; Water Symbolism; Public Education
1. Introduction
The world faces severe and growing challenges in main-
taining water quality and meeting the rapidly growing
demand for water resources [1]. One of the key chal-
lenges in implementing corrective actions is lack of aware-
ness and capability among the general public [2]. This
calls for targeted and often creative approaches to engage
society. Supporting community actions and intervening
through behavioral change programs have been known to
drive society towards an ecologically sustainable life
style and work practices. Some examples are awareness
in waste prevention, water pollution, climate change and
biodiversity conservation [3]. Therefore educating and
empowering people to become active agents of sustain-
able and equitable development would be an important
step towards a better global future [4]. In this connection,
water education is a key theme of the International Hy-
drological Programme and considered a strategic starting
point in developing a new ethic for water governance and
management [5].
Solving water problems starts with scientific assess-
ment and risk analysis, then with public education and
finally with shaping of appropriate political action [6]. In
addition, to policy makers who are directly involved in
planning water resources development, allocation, and
management, decisions have to be made together with
the rest of the water users: citizens and scientific experts.
In this context, raising awareness about water issues is
thus a main pre-assumption for constructive public par-
ticipation during specific decisions about water man-
agement and water protection.
However, there are many challenges in providing wa-
ter education for sustainable development. In spite of the
wide range of materials and projects focusing on wa-
ter-related education, not infrequently there are short-
comings including: lack of adaptation in offering specific
solutions to individual locations and communities; chal-
lenges in communication targeting, lack of integration
with the wider curriculum and local knowledge; and
weak linkages with locally available professional bodies
[5]. Especially when dealing with indigenous knowledge,
it is to be noted that such water knowledge for example
may have to be modified or rebuilt, or simply accepted.
In this paper, we focus on how meanings of water
(communicated via proverbs and symbolism) can influ-
ence individuals and communities’ behaviour and prac-
tice of water management.
opyright © 2013 SciRes. JWARP
2. Meanings of Water
The meanings of water for certain populations can be
perceived as one of the key factors in raising awareness
about water issues. Water has different levels of impor-
tance for different people, depending on their personal
characteristics, socio-demographic factors, ethnic or com-
munity background. Consequently, one of the main chal-
lenges to change a wide range of undesirable attitudes is
the need to successfully change behaviors [7]. Namely,
attitudes have cognitive, emotional and behavioral com-
ponent and a key target for raising awareness can be be-
havioral change. Changed behavior can then lead people
to better and more constructive public participation.
One way on how to change behaviors of certain popu-
lation, discussed in this article is, adapting a model called
Health Belief Model [8]. This model, imported from
health psychology can be used in attempts to change de-
structive water behavior, as well as to promote responsi-
ble public participation. But prior to this, a background
discussion on water symbolism and proverbs is provided
as follows.
2.1. Symbolism of Water
Identification of differences in the perception of sym-
bolic values of water to various people, can lead us to get
better insight why the term “water” has different mean-
ing to each individual. Certain individuals are inclined to
appreciate and care about the value of fresh water, while
the others can only watch water issues at a distance,
symbolically [9].
A study was performed to explore the differences and
correlates among different symbolic values of water and
selected demographic and socio-economic characteristics.
The snowball sample (N = 137) of people in Croatia was
examined, using preliminary list of 40 possible symbolic
meanings of water. Subjects then had to show how much
certain symbolism of water is characteristically important
to them. The results of principal component analysis
(PCA) with varimax rotation showed the existence of
three latent dimensions that best represent three symbolic
values of water drawn out from the preliminary list
namely, abstract, concrete and identity value. Abstra c t
values of water were described as very global ontological,
mythological and religious meanings. Concrete values of
water were described as dominantly associations that
were directly linked with fresh water and its practical use,
challenges, dangers, opportunities. The third latent di-
mension was the most interesting. This, so-called identity
value of water represents the symbolism of national and
regional affiliation, together with astrological meaning of
water that was probably linked with personal identity.
Correlations were then undertaken between latent di-
mensions (symbolic meanings of water) and certain vari-
ables: age, work experience and education level. Only
small numbers of statistically significant correlations
were found: e.g. positive statistically significant correla-
tions showed that abstract values of water are more fre-
quent with older subjects having longer work experience.
On the latent dimensions of symbolic meanings of water,
very small numbers of statistically significant differences
were found according to participants’ gender, type of the
profession and regional affiliation. Abstract meanings of
water were more significant for women, while the sym-
bolic meanings of water as identity were more significant
for e.g. to participants born near the sea [9]. The Appen-
dix provides list of water terms used and summary of
statistical analyses.
2.2. Water Proverbs
One of the distinctive features of human society is pos-
session of “culture” i.e. a developed sense of knowledge,
beliefs and expectations which is shared and inherited at
various levels of their social organization. One such ma-
nifestation is the existence of vast amount of cultural
references, through customs, religion, and folklore. Pro-
verbs are a most common example of this oral culture.
Simply defined a proverb means “a short sentence,
usually in a figurative expression, expressing well known
truths, social norms, or moral themes in common use by
a society or social group” [10]. Many proverbs are rooted
in a country’s ancient cultural heritage or religion, while
others may have literary origin, as used by famous peo-
ple, or may stem from memorable incidents in the past.
Proverbs are an essential part of the oral culture of a
society, and are frequently used to define the environ-
ment and experiences of a particular society. As water,
influences all aspects of life, it is a frequent subject of
proverbs and can be found in many cultures.
The existence of similar kinds of proverbs in different
languages suggests that some conceptions of intelligence
and reasonable behaviour are to some degree universal
[11]. Thus sharing proverbs between different cultures
will also help in developing some degree of universal
appreciation and awareness towards “super culture” and
help in building cross-cultural dialogue for peace and
security, as mentioned in UNESCO’s Universal Declara-
tion of Cultural Diversity, 2001.
In this context, 517 proverbs across 104 different lan-
guages and cultures containing the term “water” were
examined from an online database [12]. This database is
the most complete available and concurs with public col-
lections made previously by the author (YNA) [13].
The proverbs were then analysed by considering the
key water theme (metaphorically or otherwise) they are
addressing [14]. This approach had proven to be useful,
when comparing across cultures in the past.
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Copyright © 2013 SciRes. JWARP
The investigation results showed incidences of fre-
quently encountered proverbs from many languages but
across two themes. The first one dealt with the impor-
tance of protecting water resources. In this context, the
most common proverb noted “Do not spit in to a well
which you may drink later”. The second theme was, on
the importance of using the water one has wisely, as ex-
emplified with the proverb “We only appreciate the value
of water, when the well is dry”.
Overall, such universal themes indicate, the impor-
tance of water management across cultures. Moreover,
coupled with appreciation to one’s own cultural heritage,
they could be powerful vehicles to carry wise water
management messages to their respective communities.
3. From Health Belief Model to Water Belief
Health Belief Model (HBM) has been previously used in
attempts to explain and predict health behaviors: through
focus on the attitudes and beliefs of individuals about
health [15]. Although it was originally developed in re-
sponse to the failure of a free tuberculosis health screen-
ing program [8], it has since been used for sexual risk
behaviours and HIV/AIDS pandemics. Through this arti-
cle, we suggest HBM can also be applied in water educa-
tion for the purpose of raising environmental awareness.
An example of the core assumptions and statements of
HBM, as applied to water issues are shown in see Table
For practical application purposes, the HBM could fur-
ther be described in terms constructs representing the
perceived threats and benefits: perceived susceptibility,
perceived severity, perceived benefits, and perceived
barriers. Further two concepts building on the above
readiness to act i.e. cues to action (cues activate readi-
ness for action and stimulate overt behavior); and self-
efficacy (i.e. confidence of the individual that he/she has
the ability to successfully perform a better action) could
extend the models application [8]. Table 2 describes
these, as applied to the water health model.
4. Conclusion
The studies in this show that water proverbs and symbol-
ism can give insight into societal attitudes towards water.
As part of this, they could raise awareness via behavioral
change, stimulating more constructive and responsible
behavior toward topical water management issues. As
such they could point towards an important potential
Table 1. Health belief model and water belief model depiction on when a person undertakes a respective action.
Health Belief Model Water Belief Model
feels that a negative health condition (i.e., HIV) can be avoided feels that a negative water condition (i.e. scarcity of drinking water) can be
has a positive expectation that by taking a recommended action, he/she
will avoid a negative health condition (i.e., using condoms will be
effective at preventing HIV)
has a positive expectation that by taking a recommended action, he/she will
avoid a negative water condition (i.e. fresh water will be sufficiently
available for drinking)
believes that he/she can successfully take a recommended health action
(i.e., he/she can use condoms comfortably and with confidence)
believes that he/she can successfully take a recommended water action (i.e.
he/she will use water saving techniques to ensure scarcity of drinking water
at home)
Table 2. Application to water belief model from constructs of health belief model (adapted from [16]).
Concept Definition Application in water issues
Perceived Susceptibility One’s opinion of chances of getting a condition
Define population(s) at risk, risk levels; personalized risk based on
a person’s features or behavior; heighten perceived susceptibility
if too low
Perceived Severity One’s opinion of how serious a condition and
its consequences are
Specify consequences of the water risk and the current (perceived)
Perceived Benefits One’s belief in the efficacy of the advised action to
reduce risk or seriousness of impact
Define what action has to be taken by an individual, how, where and
when; clarify the positive effects to be expected
Perceived Barriers One’s opinion of the tangible and psychological
costs of the advised action
Identify and reduce barriers through reassurance, incentives,
Cues to Action Strategies to activate “readiness” Provide howto information, promote awareness, and invent
Self-Efficacy Confidence in one’s ability to take action Provide training, guidance in performing action.
where as part of an education exercise, they could con-
tribute to conservation endeavours. To this end the at-
tempt to translate an established Health Belief Model
into a practical Water Belief Model, with potential ap-
plications is recommended.
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Table 1. The water symbolism list: descriptive characteristics for the list of symbolic associations about water.
Water Symbolism List Mean Std. Deviation
astrologic symbolism 2.167 1.295
swimming pool 4.575 0.798
disease 2.007 1.033
inherent part of everything 3.807 1.181
geometric body 1.353 0.821
global warming 3.672 1.102
intimate relationship 2.007 1.078
source of the life 4.397 0.998
equality of the nations 1.779 1.107
chaos 1.850 1.111
cosmic energy 2.180 1.308
creative principle 2.096 1.145
wisdom 2.178 1.298
national borderlines 2.541 1.252
national identity 2.133 1.171
irrigation 4.522 0.915
non-differentiated 2.684 1.370
lack 3.415 1.242
abundance 3.135
memory 1.809 1.139
tide 4.711 0.679
beginning of the world 3.328 1.279
concept of a number 1.419 0.794
agriculture 3.706 1.005
overflow 4.511 0.945
predominance 2.162 1.175
transition of life 2.059 1.258
cleaning power 3.588 1.232
regional identity 2.368 1.298
birth 2.919 1.344
self-recovery 2.918
memory 2.448 1.284
starting power 3.588 1.226
spirituality 2.348 1.318
hygiene resources 4.459 0.944
fear 2.066 1.224
universe 2.143 1.116
fundamental component 4.304 1.046
vibrations 2.194 1.166
water for drinking 4.888 0.501
contaminated 3.676 1.154
life energy 3.567 1.259
knowledge 1.919 1.072
The highest values of means are observed in associations
connected with water for drinking, tides and the swim-
ming pool. The highest variations among participants are
found in associations connected with self-recovery and
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Table 2. Pearson’s correlations between the dimensions of symbolic meanings of water and socio-demographic variables.
Variables education level work experience age abstract meaning identity meaning concrete meaning
education level 1
work experience 0.12 1
age 0.01 0.93** 1
abstract meaning 0.01 0.26** 0.24** 1
identity meaning 0.06 0.14 0.11 0.01 1
concrete meaning 0.26** 0.07 0.07 0.07 0.04 1
**Correlation is significant at the 0.01 level (2-tailed); *Correlation is significant at the 0.05 level (2-tailed).
All the three symbolic meanings of water are not sig-
nificantly inter-correlated, an unavoidable consequence
of using Principal Component method for extracting the
latent dimensions of the Water Symbolism List (WSL).
Among the cross-correlations between the dimensions of
symbolic meanings of water and socio-demographic vari-
ables, all statistically significant correlations are very low.
Positive correlations are found between abstract meaning
of water and subjects’ age and their work experience,
while a negative one is found between concrete meaning
of water and subjects’ education level.
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