“Water for Life: Regeneration of New Spirit” – By Robert Gronski
The Old Testament prophet Ezekiel was known for his visions, both the destruction of Jerusalem and then its renewal. But first the people must become clean again and find favor in their Lord God. Chapter 36 begins with regeneration of the land of Israel, and then to regeneration of the exiled people. “I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all impurities,” Ezekiel prophesizes in the holy name of God. “I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts” (Ez 36:25-26).
The Catholic Church and other faith traditions are effusive in their language when it comes to the cleansing sacredness of water. Needless to say in its natural state, water is absolutely vital for the survival of humanity and all species on earth. Water is a good of creation: meant for all human beings, all communities and all life. God intended that water, like all natural created things on earth, would be shared fairly by humankind under the guidance of justice tempered by charity. This guidance was reaffirmed often by Pope Benedict XVI and Blessed John Paul II over the past few decades.
One measure of this is the fact that the Vatican has stayed engaged with the World Water Forum that began in 1997 and convenes every three years. The most recent forum in 2012 focused on solutions: solutions for access to water, better sanitation, conservation, and managing water as a human right. The Holy See has laid out a set of principle in their document “Water, An Element Essential for Life” which makes clear that water is a fundamental good of God’s creation and a key factor for peace and security.
Water, food and energy nexus
It is not surprising to know that agriculture accounts for a major share of global freshwater use, roughly 70 percent. For Catholic Rural Life members, we take great interest in how water is used on farms and what can be done to prevent mismanagement and pollution of streams and waterways. Over the past couple of decades, we have also taken a great interest in the connection between water and generation of energy. Fresh water is heavily drawn for power generation, both for electricity and transportation needs. For an industrialized nation like the United States, that’s a great deal of water. For instance, large amounts of energy are required to pump water up from underground aquifers and to pipe water from one region to another.
When it comes to agriculture, fuel energy is needed to farm the land and transport food crops, some of which can be turned into biofuel. That creates a dilemma as we weigh food needs against energy needs. It is increasingly clear that freshwater resources cannot always meet the water demands of agriculture, energy generation, public drinking water and industry. We need to more efficiently manage water supplies: there is no substitute, except the dwindling possibility of finding or producing more fresh water.
Water and the coming scarcity
How do we value water? Can economic globalization fairly distribute this vital resource? Or will it be winner (meaning the wealthy) take all? These are some of the questions guiding the research of Christiana Peppard, Ph.D., assistant professor of theology and science at Fordham University, who has studied and written extensively about water issues. In “Fresh Water and Catholic Social Teaching: A Vital Nexus,” Peppard begins with the incontrovertible statement: “Water is life.” She continues: “In biblical, cosmological and geological senses, it is an early and vital matrix of creation.”
As also illustrated in Tom Giessel’s article (pp. 12-14 ), Peppard makes clear that fresh water is a sine qua non requirement for human life: we cannot live without it. But Peppard adds another critical aspect: water is sui generis, which is to say there is no substitute for clean, fresh water. It cannot be replaced; we cannot create something new through our science or technology.
“For human beings and societies, for the fields we till and for the industrial processes we enact, the absence of clean, fresh water augurs desiccation, decline, or death. Its availability and distribution are increasingly heralded as issues that will shape the social, economic and environmental terrain of the twenty-first century” (325-26).
Peppard states that these two features — that water is sui generis and sine qua non — are manifested everywhere on earth, but in ways that are contextual and particular. “Water has so many meanings, mediates so many things, and can be assessed in so many different ways,” she said. Resolving current fears about water as “the new oil” — a scarce resource or commodity – will require an international, intercultural and interdisciplinary approach. Peppard sees that as a call to humility and persistence.
Still waiting to know
Academics like Peppard, as well as other researchers in government and non-governmental organizations, are humble enough to say that much more needs to be learned about the world’s water resources. Even in the United States, we have not performed life cycle analyses of resource use for the vast majority of goods, services and industrial processes. According to the Water-Food-Energy Nexus report noted above:
• We have a poor understanding of where, when and how much water is used.
• We have a poor understanding of the true economic costs of environmental degradation, such as pollution, habitat destruction and natural resource overuse because these costs are typically excluded from the price of goods and services.
• We are not effectively monitoring the condition — or coordinating the management — of food, water and energy systems.
Say it again: Water is life
As water goes, so goes human life. If water sources are imperiled, then all the earth is imperiled. But when we hear this, are we motivated to act or do we just shrug it off as another “end of the world” hype? At the very least, we must acknowledge that human activities have an extensive impact on the land, water, and vast biological life that comprise the ecosystems of our planet.
But many believe, despite stern warnings from scientists, that our human activities aren’t really causing global warming or depleting all the water on the earth. How is it possible to deny that the environmental damage we’ve already caused to the planet is obviously damaging human health and well-being? These impacts can only worsen into the future — and most of that damage affects those who are least able to protect themselves.
So we rightly ask: Can people of faith make a positive contribution to preventing further destruction of our water sources and other threats to our earth? Church leaders and faith-based thinkers can help show us how to “green” our Catholic faith. Following the lead of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis promises to guide us in valuing the goodness of creation, to use creation with gratitude and restraint, and to live virtuously within and among God’s creation.
Putting it in policy terms
The challenge, then, is to ensure that natural resources are used efficiently and productively enough to be adequate for everyone’s present needs and available for future generations. Government policy, especially at the federal level, must set the stage by improving ecological management and illuminating how water-food-energy systems and processes overlap. Otherwise, a policy relevant to a single resource might actually end up having a negative impact on the rest of the food, water and energy system.
Somehow we must build trust again between citizens, governments and businesses so that cooperation can come about and decisions are seen as transparent and legitimate. Change can only happen if policy makers, business owners and consumers alike better understand the interconnections of resource use, environmental impacts, climate change, and human actions and responses.
In our everyday lives, then, we must undergo a shift in thinking. It does matter how we use water and how much. The choices we make at home and at the grocery store, the decisions made by business managers, and the policies set by elected officials will affect the land, our waters and all of creation. In turn, this will come back to affect us, for better or worse.
Everything will live where water flows
This article began with reference to Ezekiel, so let’s end with his vision of the “wonderful stream” flowing from the temple, which is the Word:
“Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there. It will become fresh; and everything will live where the river goes…
“On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.” ~ Ezekiel 47:9, 12
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Catholic Rural Life, “Life-Giving Water: Sustaining Creation and Communities.”