The need for water is universal. It is as necessary as air to sustain life in all its forms. Many of us take access to fresh water for granted when we turn on the tap in a way that those who walk half a day to draw water from a stream cannot. Water raises issues of justice and equity. Each local context of water is different, in some place drought; in others flooding, rising tides or access to clean water and sanitation.
Moreover, water plays a critical role in most of the world’s major religions, from washing before worship and ritual purification, to baptism. The difficulty of accessing water and the amount of time spent gathering sufficient water for the day in the Middle East when each of main religious texts of the three monotheistic traditions were written made it a rich theological metaphor. In the present day, it is easy to forget why so many of the stories take place around wells and wadis and watering places.
Faith also often speaks strongly about its adherents’ responsibility for the stewardship of our earth and its resources, including water. Whatever your creation story, all the water in the world today is the same water that was present at creation.
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Need, theology and stewardship all come together to make the universality of the topic of water, together with its locally specific context, a wonderful subject to unite people of different faiths in different locations. This is how the JustWater programme came to be. The programme’s intention is to raise consciousness, nurture shared understanding, and provide impetus and guidance for direct action and mutual support. Linking the convening power of the church with other faiths, charities, business, and public officials to share resources and raise awareness of water issues around the world is intended to demonstrate how much more can be accomplished when we work together.
Programme partners in Australia, South Africa, the United States and the United Kingdom have developed an integrated programme with business, science, liturgy and the arts to raise awareness, deepen understanding and build a shared community for action. Events have included colloquia around World Water Day on Water Justice, celebrations of water in art and music, Lenten reflections and sermons, and an upcoming event on Water Politics. The latter looks at how the search for water and control of watersheds is a source of many geo-political conflicts.
These subjects are intimately linked to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and this year’s G20 summit agenda. SDG#6 is to ‘ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.’ The G20 summit in Hamburg this summer is looking at sustainability, resource efficiency, reducing marine litter, promoting health, food security and partnership with Africa. The common link among all these topics is water.
So water links the personal, the theological, and the political in a way that rarely occurs so vividly. At the same time, it is also linked to happy images: the calming sound of a brook or the cool feel of the ocean on a hot day. This universality and ubiquity can sometimes lead to negligence regarding its use and the need to safeguard access to sufficient fresh water for all. The next time you turn on the tap, or leave it running, try to imagine going to a well to draw water for your daily needs: to quench, to cook, and to clean. Imagine how much water you would need to draw in buckets. Then try to imagine how you would fill and carry (and spill!) that water getting from a source to your home. A litre of water weighs a kilo. Try to imagine the weight of water you use in a day in your arms or on your shoulders as you carry it home. Water becomes a much more precious resource when considered in this light.
Barbara Ridpath is Director of the St Paul’s Institute at St Paul’s Cathedral, London.
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