Water poverty is defined as living on less than 20 litres per day. Around the globe, 663 million people lack access to clean water. Almost one quarter of the world's population faces economic water shortage, where countries lack the necessary infrastructure to take water from rivers and aquifers.
The Anglican Church is taking up the theme of Water justice and cathedrals around the world are hosting conferences on water justice.
The theme of water justice is urgent in Cape Town as we have only 100 days of water left. Justice and water are closely linked in South Africa as a result of our great inequalities. In green suburbs water is used by homes with more bathrooms that people, with big swimming pools and vast lawns. In the sandy townships, a dozen families might share one communal toilet and tap. To use a communal toilet at night puts girls at risk of rape, and the children play in filthy water seeping from the poorly serviced toilets
The water crisis brings together two often divided strands of social activism – the environmentalists and those battling for social justice. Do we protect the rivers to conserve bio-diversity or are we battling for human rights around water access and sanitation?
Those passionate about the environment tend to focus on the theology of the Creator God and look to the Creation stories and the Psalms. They focus on the beauty of creation and the need to protect it. Activists for social justice draw their theology from the stories of liberation of Exodus; they focus on poverty and the need for liberation from oppression.
In the call for water justice, these two strands come together. As Pope Francis has said ‘we must hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor’.
We need an embracing theology which unites the call for freedom with the call to care for Creation – for we all live downstream. The late Steve de Gruchy calls for a Theology of the Jordan River – let us imagine the people of Israel, former slaves, fleeing from oppression, crossing the Jordan river into a new land of hope and freedom.
This theology has two sides: firstly, the Israelites are people of the Exodus, liberated from slavery. But now they are not just free. They are about to take on the responsibility of creating a society that honours both humanity and the earth. This is a land that will flow with milk and honey for generations to come. The bounty of the land is to be used for the widow, the alien and the oppressed and to be stewarded for future generations. This theology of the Jordan river holds together economics and ecology, recognizing that "we all live downstream". It is a reminder that freedom is worth nothing for the poor if we cannot deal with sewage.
Physically, two-thirds of our bodies are water. Spiritually we become part of the family of God through the waters of baptism. We have lost the sense of sacredness of water, seeing it as ‘something that comes out of a tap’. How can we reconnect with water as something holy and precious? Christians know the name of the river that Jesus was baptised in - the River Jordan. And yet where did the water come from that was used for your baptism?
Water is life. Water is sacred
The Revd Rachel Mash is the co-ordinator for the Anglican Church of Southern Africa’s Environmental Network