The management of natural resources is crucial to Lijiang's Naxi community, primarily as a result of their religion. While many practice Taoism or Buddhism today, the most prominent religion of the Naxi is Dongba, which is based on nature worship. The Naxi venerate "Shu" spirits living in the mountains, forests, lakes, rivers, and springs. Until just recently, Lijiang's centuries-old system supplied the area with clean, fresh water—primarily due to the Naxi's diligence in water quality preservation, in honor of the Shu spirits (Yang 2004).
In the ancient system, primary springs emerge from a carbonate rock aquifer and feed into Black Dragon Pond. From this pond, water follows the Jade River and then divides into three canals to provide water to the Old Town of Lijiang. The east canal was built in the Yun dynasty (1271-1368), the central canal follows the Jade River's course, and the west canal was built in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Canals further subdivide into the city. Additional springs and bored wells provide supplementary access to water in the town (Murphy and Chen 2007).
Historically, the canal water was used for drinking and cooking in the early morning, for washing food in the late morning, and for washing clothes and household items in the afternoon. Recently, the canal water is still used for washing clothes and other household purposes, but no longer for drinking water (Murphy and Chen 2007).