[Episcopal News Service] The demand for water is expected to increase 55 percent by 2030 and at the same time global water resources may only meet 60 percent of the world’s needs. “Africa, India, the Middle East and Australia already are in crisis,” said Maude Barlow, a former United Nations senior advisor on water, and an author, political activist and policy critic. Some say “the solution to the water crisis is to commodify water,” she added, during a March 23 session on “Waters: Commons or Commodity” during Water Justice, a global conference taking place at Trinity Church Wall Street in New York City and webcast worldwide March 22-24.
The Rev. Brandon Mauai, a deacon in the Diocese of North Dakota and member of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, talked about the Episcopal Church’s support for the Standing Rock Sioux Nation as it and its allies fought against the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The conference aimed to offer actionable guidance for individuals, congregations and the larger faith community surrounding the need for water justice initiatives in areas of access, droughts, pollution, rising tides and flooding. Water Justice is the 46th annual conference organized by the Trinity Institute, past conferences have addressed racial justice and economic inequality.
If the Great Lakes, the largest surface freshwater system on Earth, “were pumped as mercilessly as ground water, they would be dry in 80 years,” Barlow warned. Russia’s Aral Sea, once the fourth-largest freshwater lake in the world, is now 10 percent its former size. Half the waters in China, a water-rich country, have disappeared. Sao Paulo, the second largest city in the world, is drought-stricken because rapid destruction of the Amazon rainforest has decreased vapor clouds that used to carry water to central and south Brazil.
All of this, Barlow said, is happening as corporations, governments and the World Bank, contemplate a global waters market, where water futures can be sold like oil and gas.
“Is it [water] a human right, a public trust or a private asset?” asked Barlow.
“We have to fiercely protect it everywhere as a commons,” she said. “Water shouldn’t be put into the market. That doesn’t mean the private sector doesn’t have a role. But the central question is who owns water itself, and who has access to it and who does not, and in places around the world now this is a life or death situation.”
The United Nations says water is a human right, and Barlow was instrumental in moving the intergovernmental organization to make that determination. On July 28, 2010, the U.N. General Assembly recognized the human right to water and sanitation and acknowledged that access to both are “essential to the realization of all human rights.” The resolution passed with 122 nations in favor, zero against and 41 abstentions, including the United States and Canada. (Both the U.S. and Canada have since adopted the resolution.)
Still, saying water is a human right doesn’t mean it’s protected or that everyone has access to it. As examples, Barlow mentioned Detroit and Baltimore, two cities that have turned off residents’ taps.
In Detroit, a financially strapped, hollowed-out inner city, residents’ water rates tripled and many poor people couldn’t afford to pay their water bills; in Baltimore, city officials maintained it was necessary to have a system in which everyone paid pays “their fair share.”
As Christiana Zenner Peppard, a professor at Fordham University a theologian and freshwater expert, pointed out in her response to Barlow’s talk, a human being can survive less than 7 days without water.
“Water is not replaceable by any other thing; it is the baseline for human, ecological and the planetary system,” she said. “You cannot talk about water and justice as two separate things.”
In terms of religious values and water ethics, “it’s foundational to life and understood as finite,” and at least from the Christian point of view, access to water is caring for “the least of these.”
The Roman Catholic Church, she said, has been an advocate for water as a human right since the early aughts; in his encyclical on the environment, Pope Francis said that water shouldn’t be commodified.
Archbishop Winston Halapua, one of three primates of the Anglican Church in Polynesia and Aotearoa New Zealand, responsible for New Zealand-based Samoan, Tongan, Indo-Fijian, and Fijian congregations, talked about his childhood and growing up in Tonga, where his life was in sync with the tide cycle.
Sea-level rise continues to claim whole islands in the Pacific, where the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia is establishing a “clear resilience strategy” to strengthen its response to future natural disasters in the Pacific islands.