Photo Essay

Springs of Living Water

The Spring God

In the Okinawan religion there are three things that are considered, for lack of a better word, Holy. They make up the trinity of the faith and are represented by a high place or grove of trees, a cave and a natural spring. They represent heaven, earth and the ocean. It's also interesting to note they also make up the three necessary ingredients for survival. That being food, shelter and water. Natural springs here are life giving forces of nature that are also symbols of creation and carry with them religious significance of a blessing from heaven.

As the society developed, many local communities literally sprung up "pun intended" around the many fresh water springs scattered throughout the island. The village spring became the center piece of this development. In the mornings people would come to the spring to gather water for cooking and drinking. Later in the day, the water from the springs was used again to wash the days gathering of vegetables. In the evening people bathed and washed their clothes there. What wasn't used by the people for direct use and consumption was channeled off for agricultural use. Water was precious and very little was wasted. As it was a frequent gathering place, the spring became the social center of the village.

In the past, the many springs and wells found throughout Okinawa were more than sufficient to support the local population. But after the war, many springs were damaged beyond repair. Okinawa also experienced a population explosion. As a result of Japan's steady economic growth, Okinawa's pleasant climate and lower cost of living, this island paradise has now become a haven for an ever growing number of retirees. Throw in five million tourists annually and now you've got a problem on your hands. The need to find new water sources used to be just a challenge, out of necessity it became an obsession.

Okinawa seems to get more than its fair share of annual rainfall so you wouldn't think a potential water shortage would present such a dilemma. Throw in an occasional typhoon or two and the point would seem to be moot. However, the rugged terrain and the few short steep rivers don't allow for adequate water collection and storage. The majority runs straight off and into the sea. The river basins are very small and the annual rainfall, even with a few typhoons thrown in for good measure are not be sufficient to replenish the water table given the growing population.

Dam construction on Okinawa began in earnest during the American Administration years. While these were originally planned to supply the many American bases with water, plans were expanded to include the civilian population and their needs. In order to solve the problem of keeping one dam sufficiently filled with water, engineers paradoxically built several and used the natural force of gravity to connect them into a single network. As water is pulled from the dam, at the lowest level, the reservoir is then replenished from several other dams, all of which are located at higher elevations.

The problem of water for tiny Okinawa would seem to be solved for the moment. Still, it's nice to see that people return to the roots that bind them together. The natural springs of Okinawa are now mostly tourist attractions but many are still used the old fashioned way. Many in the older generations still gather there to socialize. To this day it's not uncommon to see people filling containers with fresh spring drinking water, washing off their freshly picked vegetables and diverting the rest for agricultural use.

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