The international post-2015 development agenda is in need of a comprehensive water development framework based on widely shared ethical principles.
It is a sign of hope that the Millennium Development Goal on Water was achieved in 2010, 5 years ahead of schedule. However, regional disparities remain a major challenge. As a global community, it is an unbearable situation that, in our modern times, more than 780 million people still lack sustainable access to clean drinking water and around 2.5 billion people live without proper sanitation.
The main criteria for assessing progress towards the MDG target is access to an “improved water source”, which reveals the weakness that the current monitoring scheme does not measure the quality of the water assessed through this improved source, and if it is really potable. Many experts therefore estimate that the real number of people who do not have permanent access to safe drinking water is much higher.1
These global and impersonal figures mask the harsh reality for millions of women and children (mostly girls) who have to walk long distances and queue in line for hours to fetch water for their families. Surveys reveal that in some water-scarce regions, women and children have to get up at 3 am in the morning to make it to the nearest well or borehole and back before breakfast, and thus are putting their health (by carrying heavy loads of water) and security (by leaving the house in the dark and exposing themselves to the threat of rape, robbery and assault) at risk.2 Many women and girls are thus prevented from attending school or gaining a livelihood. But failing to do so would mean a waterless day for their whole family.
The religious and spiritual traditions of humanity share a deep commitment to global empathy and solidarity: Humanity forms one body. When one part of the body aches other parts of the body feel the pain. When this sense is lost it is an indication of a fatal disease that will eventually ravish the whole body.
It is a shame that we can fly people to the moon and in the near future even to Mars but cannot provide for the basic needs of the hungry and the thirsty. The process of shaping the international post-2015 development agenda therefore provides a major opportunity to formulate an ambitious, comprehensive goal on water that sets clear targets and timelines for providing universal access to uncontaminated water for all members of the human family by 2030. It is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss.
Religious communities and their leaders can certainly play a major role in this process, and need to be mobilized to pursue this goal by reaching out to their large constituencies.
The need for a comprehensive water development framework based on widely shared ethical principles.
To achieve this far-reaching goal, the interlinkages of water with other development targets such as health, education, poverty alleviation, environmental protection, and food and energy security need to be taken into account. The formulation of the global target on water therefore needs to be grounded in a comprehensive, integrated water development framework based on widely shared ethical principles. A review of recent literature on water ethics and existing interreligious and ecumenical statements on water reveals a broad consensus on certain values and principles that should be considered as the guideposts for such a comprehensive water framework.3 Many of these principles can be found in the Earth Charter that is gaining wide endorsement and support from around the world and is seen by many as the most serious and sustained effort to state a compelling integrated ethical vision for the future.4
1. The intrinsic value and sacredness of water
Water is the cradle and source of all life on earth, it is a sacred gift. We need to recognize that regardless of its utilitarian or commercial worth, water has a social, cultural, medical, religious and spiritual value. It is also a profound symbol within our scriptural and liturgical traditions. Many see in it a medium of the mystical.5
• Water should therefore not be treated as a commodity or seen merely as a means to make personal profits.
• It is not ‘just water’, it is “Sister Water” (St. Francis), it is worthy of awe, reverence, and gratitude.
• Everyone dealing with water within local or national governments, international institutions, civil society or business should recognize this intrinsic value and sacred quality of water.
2. Water is a human right that needs to be guaranteed by the state
Access to safe and clean drinking water needs to be seen as a fundamental and inalienable right of all human beings, without distinction or discrimination. It is heartening that the UN General Assembly in 2010 affirmed the right to water and sanitation as essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights. It is the legal as well as moral responsibility of the state to guarantee access to water to all of the population, including the poor. The state cannot escape this responsibility by shifting the task of water delivery and management to private entities.
• This guarantee includes fixing an affordable price for water, making the necessary technical and financial means available, and involving local communities in decisions relevant to them.
• It should become a priority for the new international development agenda to provide the necessary resources and scale-up the capacities of governments, especially in developing countries, to guarantee the right to water.
• In all local, national and international water policies, the just and sustainable provision of water to the poor and most excluded needs to be prioritised.
• New innovative partnerships need to be forged between governments, civil society and social businesses to develop new infrastructure and affordable water services for low income groups.
3. To preserve the long-term sustainability of our freshwater supply, ecosystems need to be preserved and protected in their unmodified state.
Modern scientific knowledge asserts that every decision to alter an ecosystem results in the loss of goods and services to society, such as water and air quality, fisheries, flood control or species diversity.6
Given that one of the main economic assets of developing countries is their vast mineral deposits and resources, it is an alarming figure that 80 to 90 percent of hazardous wastewater in these countries is estimated to be directly released into streams, lakes and rivers.7 Improving wastewater treatment in developing countries and preventing water pollution should therefore be given high priority.
Water policies should therefore:
• Include the allocation of water required for protecting the vitality and integrity of our eco-systems,
• Be based on a thorough understanding of the hydrologic cycle and the integrity of hydrographic basins,
• Consider the interlinkages to other major environmental themes such protecting the forests and curbing climate change that puts the glaciers as the world’s largest freshwater reserves under severe threat, which is likely to be a main driver of conflicts over water in the future,
• Implement a global monitoring scheme on the health of our rivers based on the groundbreaking air and water pollution maps developed by the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) in Beijing, China.8
• Forge new partnerships among scientists, businesses and civil society to develop new and innovative solutions for improved wastewater treatment and pollution containment and speed up their implementation,
• Strengthen the capacities of local and national authorities to make multinational corporations liable for environmental harm and provide effective remedies and redress to affected communities,
• Build on the historic ruling of the district court in The Hague on the responsibility of Royal Dutch Shell's Nigerian subsidiary for the oil pollution in the Niger delta and advance the juridical procedures for making multinationals liable in their home countries for human rights abuses and environmental damage and of their foreign subsidiaries (“parent liability”).
Hope Propels us to Action
A human can live a few weeks without food, and even a few days without hope but not even a moment without water. We are at a transitional moment in the Earth’s history when all our faculties can be integrated in a global partnership of compassion, which needs to become the life force of a decent society where no one is degraded.
The wilful pollution of water is the result of the inner pollution of the human, living water is the result of the "selfish act" of love for the other. We need to rise to the occasion to build a water-secure world and join together so that compassionate science together with compassionate economics and the courage of compassionate politics will draw living water from the rock.
We do not live in isolation; we draw strength from each other. And religious leadership which has been too timid for a long time will be in the vanguard of this global partnership. Living water will be in reach of the whole community of life and thus hope will propel us to action.
- United Nations Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation: Water and Sanitation for All: Securing our Future, Preserving Our Planet. UNSGAB’s call for a Post-2015 Global Goal on Water, January 2013, www.unsgab.org
- United Church of Canada, Global Partnership Water Survey Report, http://www.united-church.ca/ecology/water
- See for example Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches of Brazil and Switzerland: Ecumenical Declaration on Water as a Human Right and Public Good, 22 April 2005; Water, Essential for Justice and Peace, an Interfaith Statement to the 4th World Water Forum, March 2006; Statement of the Conference “Churches for Water in Africa”, 21 – 25 May 2007, Entebbe, Uganda; Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace: Water, an Essential Element for Life, Designing Sustainable Solutions, An update, A contribution of the Holy See to the Sixth World Water Forum, Marseille, 12 – 17 March 2012. These statements are available at www.soetendorpinstitute.org
- More information available at www.earthcharterinaction.org
- See the groundbreaking introduction of a new water ethics in: Larry L. Rassmussen: Earth Honoring Faith, Religious Ethics in a New Key, Oxford University Press 2013, 255 – 285.
- Worldwatch Institute: Liquid Assets – The Critical Need to Safeguard Freshwater Ecosystems, Worldwatch Paper 179, July 2005, 52 – 60.
- UNSGAB’s call for a Post-2015 Global Goal on Water, January 2013, www.unsgab.org.
- More information available at http://www.ipe.org.cn
Photo credit main picture: dragon caiman