A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from Yale Divinity School

What is to be Done?

Christiana Z. Peppard

Water will become an increasingly scarce and contested resource, as groundwater is depleted and climate change amplifies regional patterns of aridity or deluge. How might global, pluralistic humanity sustain the integrity of our rapidly diminishing global fresh water resources? This is the foundational challenge of the 21st century.

Today, access to clean water tends to correspond to geographic position, military might, economic prowess, or hydraulic expertise. Put simply, clean water flows toward power. This means, in general, that people living in poverty and other forms of structurally embedded vulnerability are most affected by fresh water’s absence. Women and children disproportionately bear the burdens of this heavy liquid. Young girls often forgo education in order to help meet the basic water requirements of domestic life.

What is to be done, given the scale and pervasiveness of the problem? The facts demonstrate that less than 10 percent of global fresh water is used for domestic purposes, which means that individual water-saving efforts – while part of water conservation – will not solve global fresh water crises. Fresh water is a collective challenge.

This is not to say that individual responsibility is irrelevant. In super-developed countries like the U.S., for example, individuals can and should take shorter showers and turn off the faucet while shaving at the bathroom sink (and so forth). Lawns in arid climates should be replaced with ground cover that is regionally appropriate. Xeriscaping, for example, is a much better use of ground and water in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico than thirsty lawns (the same goes for golf courses). Yet the fact remains that shorter showers and xeriscapes can go only so far.

As such, corporations and governments should immediately cease presenting the issue of water conservation as an individual, domestic responsibility. Individuals should learn about the sources and delivery mechanisms of their water supply as well as what property regimes guide it and what long-term investments are made in the care of water and sanitation infrastructure. Economists and policy makers need to develop robust notions of fresh water as a public good. Governments and corporations need to take those specifications seriously in regulation and business practices. Socially oriented businesses should include fresh water responsibility riders as a limiting condition of their investment portfolios and practices. Agricultural and industrial corporations, which represent many consumptive uses of fresh water, must be held accountable by governments and citizens. Industrial agriculture must be overthrown in the interest of groundwater sustainability and soil health. The “bottom line” for vital public goods like fresh water should never be merely economic.

Everyone – individuals, governments, and the contrived, legal “persons” called corporations – bears responsibility for the preservation and wise use of this unique and essential resource. The challenges are practical, of course, but they are also conceptual. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but there are better and worse ways of proceeding. And there are some baselines. When rivers fail to reach their seas and aquifer levels decline precipitously beyond recharge rates, there is a real problem: Our consumptive water uses are unsustainable.

Here are some of the principles I propose:

• Access to water is a fundamental human right. Other moral concepts are needed too, including the language of nonnegotiable duties to future generations and the continued development of the insight that fresh water is a public good.

• Fresh water is not, first and foremost, a commodity. Economic evaluation must be subordinated to equity in distribution for individuals, future generations, and ecosystems. Similarly, market mechanisms guided by the profit motive are insufficient for distribution of fresh water. Privatization of the water supply may be considered and thoughtfully enacted, but only insofar as equity of access (for current and future generations) is always sought and ensured before corporate profit.

• Dwindling groundwater supplies indicate that the thirst of industrial agriculture must be mitigated. Regionally appropriate crops and practices must be implemented in the interest of soil health, water supply, and sustainable food production. At a bare minimum, irrigation systems must be made maximally efficient (for example, by moving away from center-pivot irrigation to drip irrigation). But there is much more that must be done.

• Government subsidies to industrial agriculture must be revised, for they encourage profligate water extraction, excessive application of toxic chemicals, and the planting of soil-exhausting monocultures.

• The precautionary principle must be the de facto position for hydraulic technologies. Because of the vital significance of groundwater, there must be full disclosure of any toxic compounds involved in technologies that may have negative downstream consequences.

Adapted from Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis (Orbis, 2014), with permission.

Issue Title: 
At Risk: Our Food, Our Water, Ourselves
Issue Year: