Advice from on high

Islamic and Catholic leaders have made pronouncements on the right to clean water with a powerful ethical message to billions of followers. How should water professionals react?

By Christiana Z. Peppard*

Some blame religion for inflaming war and terrorism. Others counter that religion encourages care for the poor and outcast. In practice, religion can be oppressive or liberating– contributing to the fanatical violence that creates millions of Syrian refugees, as well as the generous spirit that offers food, comfort, and shelter to these same uprooted strangers. As recent events in geo-diplomacy show, some religions are forging real and profound connections between their values and natural resource scarcity.

Increasingly, scientific research and religious imperatives are both converging on dramatic, human-induced changes to natural systems–including fresh water supplies. The secular/religious nexus raises, and may inform, hard questions about water’s commodification, privatisation, and financialisation.
This summer, the Islamic Declaration on Climate Change made an eloquent case that “relentless economic growth” has impacted earth systems, including our “contamination and befoulment of the atmosphere, land, inland water systems, and seas”.
Then in September, Pope Francis addressed the UN General Assembly with a message based on his landmark encyclical on ecology and sustainability. Laudato si’ (On Care for our Common Home) highlights the idea that fresh water is a human right and not an economic commodity.
Both of these religiously framed actions may have profound political, economic, social, and ecological implications for water professionals around the world.
Granted, the idea that influential religious voices have turned to the topic of water may at first sound quite strange (or even disturbing) to water professionals, who encounter water primarily through a secular and scientific lens. But a closer look shows that these recent Islamic and Catholic treatises hold a deep appreciation of what science demonstrates. They also raise questions about the value of water–economically, environmentally, and morally–about which many water professionals also care .

Increasingly, scientific research and religious imperatives are both converging on dramatic, human–induced changes to natural systems–including fresh water supplies 

Let’s start with the science. Geohydrologist Jay Famiglietti and colleagues have mobilised NASA-GRACE satellite data in a series of studies that show steady decreases over time in the amount of fresh water in several important aquifers. Some of these aquifers are major sources of fresh water for people in parts of the world that global strategists identify as conflict-prone areas–the Middle East, for example–stoking worries that water-related conflicts could accelerate already-simmering tensions. Aquifers are the most important things we’ll never see–and the availability of new imaging methods provides vital data on aquifer depletion that hydrologists, economists, and policymakers alike should take seriously. The good news is that EcoPeace [see related Jordan River article] has demonstrated that water can be a unifying force for different communities that rely on these shared watersheds, even in fraught regions divided by religious and nationalist fissures.
The availability of clean, fresh water is also a basic condition of political and economic power. This has been made visible by legions of scholars, and by the hydraulic legacies of powerful nation-states. But beyond the sparkle of innovative technological prowess lie persistent, fundamental questions of environmental and social ethics: who gets fresh water, and how much, at what economic cost, and with which environmental consequences, borne by which communities over which spans of time?
Water is more than a constellation of molecules waiting to be measured by science or legislated by politicians. It is a vital substance, essential for all forms of human life on a daily basis. It is the kind of stuff of which social practices, religious rituals, and literary metaphors have been made throughout human history. It mediates human relationships.

This brings us back to religion

 The Pope does not speak for all religious people, and he is no hydrologist. But Increasingly, scientific research and religious imperatives are both converging on dramatic, human–induced changes to natural systems–including fresh water supplies his authoritative teaching on ecology and moral responsibility makes clear that science matters, and that water should be a topic of major concern for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. Water, he argues, is “indispensable for human life and for supporting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems … Water supplies used to be relatively constant, but now in many places demand exceeds the sustainable supply.” The social, political, and economic implications are also huge: “One particularly serious problem is the quality of water available to the poor,” he writes.
This is an issue not just of empirical scarcity but also of political economy. Fresh water should be regarded as a right, not a commodity, says Francis (he critiques the “growing tendency, despite its scarcity, to privatise this resource, turning it into a commodity”). In a related (though abbreviated) way, the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change emphasises the importance of finding alternative economic-financial models apart from the current one that “depletes resources, degrades the environment, and deepens inequality.”
Francis offers the climactic yet obvious assertion that access to fresh water “is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights.” As other official Catholic documents have phrased it, fresh water is actually a “right-to-life” issue.
Does that sound novel? Actually, this claim has been consistently percolating in Catholic moral teaching for over a decade. What’s changed is that people in industrialised countries are starting to notice.
Still, the idea that water is not only a right, but a right-to-life issue, will catch many readers by surprise, for it aligns the Catholic Church with the strongest efforts of water justice advocates and the UN’s 2010 designation that access to fresh water is a fundamental human right.
The scientifically grounded, religiously-inflected moral judgments will presumably influence trends in water pricing, allocation, re-use, and financing. Might papal popularity, or religious advocacy, help to resolve longstanding inequities in access to water? Clearly, religious figures are poised to emphasise the features of water as a public good, one that is meant for the benefit of all humans and ecosystems, over and against its market utility.
It remains to be seen how water professionals enter into, and inform, these shifting values. Yet when the world’s most prominent (and most retweeted) religious figure moves the human right to water to the forefront of global discourse, it suddenly doesn’t seem so far-fetched to imagine an ethical revolution in human relationships to declining fresh water supplies.

Christiana Peppard is an assistant professor at Fordham University, focusing on fresh water scarcity, ecological ethics, and science and religion. She is the author of Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis (2014). Find her on Twitter: @profpeppard