A Parched World’s Search for Water

By Christiana Peppard

Recall the images. Women balancing heavy plastic barrels on their heads. Girls as young as two, toting whatever buckets they can. Boys riding makeshift carts to haul the precious liquid. Farmlands cracking under the sun. These images of thirst are the faces of fresh water scarcity.

We will go to almost any extreme to find water. If we don’t have enough, then it carves an absence through our lives. Our sacramental lives overflow with the rich symbolism of life-giving, purifying fresh water. Where water is present, we find life. Where it is scarce or polluted, it brings disease or death. Yet fresh water constitutes less than 3 percent of all water on earth. The line between sufficiency and insufficiency is the difference between life and death: human beings need twenty liters per day for basic survival needs.

Aridity and water scarcity are not new notions, but our awareness of their social, economic, and political dimensions is unfurling in unprecedented ways. “Water poverty” is today a designation invoked and indexed by development experts and journalists. We refer to communities, nations, and regions as “water stressed” when there is an imbalance between the available water supply and its use.

Bottled and Beleaguered

In the present day, globalization has thrown new variables into the debate – and the fate – of fresh water supply. Fresh water has increasingly become a commodity sold at prevailing market prices. Media attention has been given to the bottled water industry and the trend of privatized municipal water supplies, from Cochabamba, Bolivia, to Atlanta, GA.

In this era of beleaguered economic and environmental regulation, the fact that water has become vulnerable to redesignation as a commodity has borne real impacts worldwide. Corporations find economic incentives to externalize the costs of environmental degradation: the costs and consequences of the degradation of fresh water supplies increasingly accrue to local communities (stake-holders) and to future generations. As advocates of environmental justice have abundantly indicated, people who live in poverty are the first to suffer the consequences.

When thinking about water, we must recognize the dynamic and complicated interplay of these many factors. There is no easy or one-size-fits-all solution. And these issues urgently raise a broader set of questions. Who owns water? Who is responsible for it? How should we navigate its many forms of value – moral, legal, political, economic, cultural, spiritual, ecosystemic? Toward what ends? In the absence of effective conversation and advocacy about these matters, the default value of water will continue to be assigned by the market in ways that dictate the flow of fresh water worldwide. The ethical problem is, as Mark Twain reputedly remarked, that water flows upwards towards wealth.

The ethical problem is, as Mark Twain reputedly remarked, that water flows upwards towards wealth.

Complicating matters, of course, is the fact that fresh water is so unevenly distributed. Water issues in the Amazon of tropical South America are not identical to those in the Sahel of the arid Sahara. Climate change will only exacerbate regional disparities in fresh water availability as dry areas become drier and wet ones wetter. “Water is the hammer with which climate change will hit the earth,” biologist Travis Huxman has declared.

Population growth will increase demand for fresh water – for domestic, industrial, and agricultural uses. The needs of agriculture claim roughly 70 percent of water use worldwide. This has made possible an unparalleled rate of food production in the twentieth century. But it also means water security and food security are deeply intertwined, pointing to a challenge that stretches from India to the farmlands of America: water used for current production is drawn from non-renewable stocks of water in deep aquifers. Wells are running dry, crops are withering. Beijing and Mexico City are sinking under the weight of unsustainable aquifer extraction.

Crucially, for the more than one billion people living in egregious impoverishment, fresh water scarcity is also the dire result of pollution – whether from industrial outputs, fertilizers and pesticides, or insufficient sanitation. Again, people living in poverty are almost always the first to suffer – either because of their location in vulnerable areas, or an inability to pay for relief. For them, the ultimate cost is not written in dollars. It is borne on their bodies.

The Long Journey

The script of water is gendered. In many regions, the longer and longer walk to retrieve potable water is written most severely on the lives of women and girls, to whom fall the primary responsibility for finding fresh water for domestic uses. When miles must be walked each way, many hours of the day are spent in pursuit of water instead of education or enterprise. The problem is one of equity and flourishing. As is well documented, all forms of development depend on the empowerment of women.

In so many ways, the theme of insufficient fresh water supply permeates the grinding cycles of poverty. Sanitation, health, economic opportunity, gender equity, and more depend on availability of clean water. Yet the challenges are embedded in specific contexts – shaped by cultural practices, trajectories of use, and patterns of privilege under globalization. The judicious use of technology will surely play an important role in sustainable solutions, but technology alone will not solve these problems.

What is a person to do?

If the situation feels overwhelming, then you are not alone. A BBC commentator has quipped, “If you want to induce mental meltdown, the statistics of the worsening global fresh water crisis are a surefire winner.” This quote certainly resonates with me. It can be destabilizing to realize that there is no con-sensus about how to envision – much less enact protections for – a substance so fundamental to life. Certainly, a growing number of relief efforts (including many Christian outreach organizations) have brought fresh water to desiccated communities by building wells or providing other forms of infrastructure. The first eruption of water from a faucet can be nothing short of miraculous, and it is vital for the survival of local communities. This work is important and necessary, but it is not sufficient; the need for solidarity extends well beyond the realm of charity. Mobilization of hearts and minds in politics, economics, and law is required if the pervasive structural features of fresh-water scarcity are to be addressed in any enduring way.

We see in water’s contemporary geopolitical contours some pervasive aspects of structural sin. But we can also experience its transformative potential. The United Nations, for example, has pressed the question of fresh water onto global agendas, especially insofar as it strives to fulfill the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – one of which aims, by the year 2015, to “reduce by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water.” Nearly one billion people lack safe drinking water and nearly 2.5 billion lack sufficient sanitation.

In 2002, the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights stated that “access to adequate amounts of clean water for personal and domestic uses is a fundamental human right of all people,” and added that “the human right to water is indispensible for leading a life in human dignity” as well as a “prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.”

Historic Resolution

This statement was abetted significantly in July 2010 by the UN General Assembly, which adopted a resolution on the right to sufficient clean water and sanitation, stating that they are “essential for the full enjoyment of life and other rights.” Though the document does not stipulate precisely how this right is to be imagined and enacted, it calls for international cooperation with regard to finance, technology transfer, and capacity building.

This is an important step forward in the struggle to address the problem of thirst and the interdependence of various human rights. But significant questions remain about implementation, international cooperation, the roles of both governments and multinational corporations, and the moral claims of impoverished communities. This is no time for complacency. Prophetic voices – Canadian activist Maude Barlow, Indian physicist-activist-philosopher Vandana Shiva, and others – are necessary to call us to attention, to encourage us towards sustainable and just solutions. Non-profit organizations such as the Blue Planet Project, Food and Water Watch, and International Rivers also steadily advocate for the common good.

What To Do: An Inquiry

But what are we to do, you ask? The scale and multiplicity of the problem overrun our paltry efforts. Yes, we need good habits of personal water conservation, but they are insufficient. So let’s consider that aggravating question a little more closely.

We must go outside of what we have thought possible, outside of what we have been trained, outside of what we have previously understood.

First, we must know what we’re talking about. Learn. Research. Read. Witness. Describe. Then, it is incumbent upon us not merely to recapitulate those facts. Theological and ethical work takes root in imagining a more robust sense of the common good – that is, the flourishing of individuals and communities, broadly understood. Theological imagination is no small thing. Live up to, and be- yond, your training. Risk believing in possibilities that seem, at the moment, impractical; others who prevailed were once memorably called fools, too.

Bringing what we know with us, we must then go outside – outside of what we have thought possible, outside of what we have been trained, outside of what we have previously understood. Be interdisciplinary. If you are an economist, work on the many problems facing water economics, and tackle those issues of value head-on. If you are a lawyer, learn about the construction of water rights worldwide. If you are an engineer, seek sustainable solutions that are context-savvy. If you are a businessperson, work to internalize your environmental and social costs; respect your stakeholders as much as you do your shareholders. If you are a minister, then preach, teach, and ritualize what it means to be neighborly in an era of globalization.

In the U.S., we inhabit a culture of privilege that also accrues a moral debt. How do we confront and correct it, not just ignore or defer it? Writing checks to worthy organizations is important. So too is the pursuit of solidarity beyond one’s bank account: listen, listen, listen to those whose wisdom comes from hard lessons, to those who have devoted their lives to thinking better about water and the structures that shape its availability. Be humble. As author and advocate Lila Watson has said: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

The pressing issues of fresh water are contextual, variable, elusive – but also fundamental and enduring. Just as there is no singular way to define the problem, neither is there a magic solution to the challenge of sustaining that which sustains us. The slippery, agonizing question of thirst is one of the great moral – even theological – questions of our time.

Christiana Z. Peppard ’05 M.A.R. is a doctoral candidate at Yale University. She is the Scholar in Residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and Visiting Scholar at the Center for Ethics Education at Fordham University. Her dissertation, “Valuing Water,” explores the ascription of value to fresh water in an era of economic globalization and charts a fresh water ethic from resources in moral anthropology and Catholic social teaching.