Water, the bloodstream of the biosphere, determines the sustainability of living systems. The essential role of water is expanded in a conceptual model of energy dissipation, based on the water balance of whole landscapes. In this model, the underlying role of water phase changes--and their energy-dissipative properties--in the function and the self-organized development of natural systems is explicitly recognized. The energy-dissipating processes regulate the ecological dynamics within the Earth's biosphere, in such a way that the development of natural systems is never allowed to proceed in an undirected or random way. A fundamental characteristic of self-organized development in natural systems is the increasing role of cyclic processes while loss processes are correspondingly reduced. This gives a coincidental increase in system efficiency, which is the basis of growing stability and sustainability. Growing sustainability can be seen as an increase of ecological efficiency, which is applicable at all levels up to whole landscapes. Criteria for necessary changes in society and for the design of the measures that are necessary to restore sustainable landscapes and waters are derived.