Blue Community: Churches response to the right to water
The final reflection of the Lenten Campaign: Seven Weeks for Water 2017 of the Word Council of Churches’ (WCC) Ecumenical Water Network (EWN) is by Prof. Dr Isabel Apawo Phiri. Dr Phiri is the deputy general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and responsible for WCC’s work on Public Witness and Diakonia.
A Malawian by nationality, Apawo Phiri was a professor of African theology, dean and head of the School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics, and director of the Centre for Constructive Theology at the University of KwaZulu Natal in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. In this reflection she explains the concept of a ‘blue community’ and points out why the bottled water industry is an impediment to the human right to water. She then takes us through the journey of the WCC into becoming a blue community through one of its ecumenical initiatives, the EWN.
Blue Community: Churches response to the right to water
By Prof. Dr Isabel Apawo Phiri
Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy ….without money and without cost. /Isaiah 55:1/
For the past few years, I had the opportunity to represent the leadership of the World Council of Churches (WCC) to accompany the Ecumenical Water Network in its efforts to urge member churches of the WCC to become a blue community. On 25 October 2016 the WCC became a Blue Community at a public event I moderated at the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva. Dr Maude Barlow from the Blue Planet Project, Canada, awarded a certificate to the WCC, welcoming us into the Blue Community and also inaugurated the tap-water-based dispensers in the Ecumenical Centre.
Let me explain three criteria of being a Blue Community:
- Recognizing water as a human right.
- Saying “no” to the sale/use of bottled water in places where tap water is safe to drink.
- Promoting publicly financed, owned and operated drinking water and waste water treatment services.
In line with the WCC’s commitment towards a Blue Community, we have now personalized glass water bottles for the WCC staff and visitors. Therefore, we do not promote bottled water in the WCC premises, because tap water is safe to drink.
In fact, earlier in 2015, the WCC’s Ecumenical Water Network (EWN) issued an appeal in which it urged its member churches to eliminate the use of bottled water in North America and Europe, where tap water is safe to drink. In a statement it said,
“The EWN strongly believes that among many impediments of realization of human right to water are the ‘bottled water’ industries.” It then went on to list some of the following compelling reasons to shun bottled water. To name a few:
1) “Bottled water” industries are involved in “land grabbing” and “water grabbing” to expand at the cost of barring the poor to access safe drinking water. Many times governments shun their responsibilities to provide safe drinking water to the poor through their water distribution system, because people have the alternative of “bottled water”. The availability of “bottled water” allows the elites to ignore governments’ failures to provide the necessary infrastructure to provide safe drinking water.
2) Bottling water wastes water: Typically, a litre of water is wasted for each litre of bottled and it takes three times as much water to create a plastic water bottle than it does to fill it.
3) Production of plastic for bottled water consumes a substantial quantity of fossil fuels and creates both air and water pollution.
4) The energy consumed in bottling and distributing bottled water is significant; if measured in terms of the oil equivalent, it takes ¼ litre of oil to produce and distribute a litre bottle of water. The greenhouse gas emissions as a result, burden our climate and aggravate climate change.
5) Over 63 billion plastic bottles are dumped in landfills, oceans, and landscapes each year. It takes hundreds of years for a single plastic bottle to decompose. If incinerated, plastic releases a variety of toxic air pollutants. There is no good way to dispose of plastic solid waste.
The above are good reasons to say no to bottled water. But the economics of bottled water industry is what makes this business thrive. In many developed countries bottled water is more expensive than petrol, wine and milk.
That is why we at the WCC promote Blue community, inspired by the biblical verse that we read at the beginning, where Isaiah says, “all who have no money, come and ‘buy’ water at no cost.” In the Old Testament water is a very rich symbol for God. Jesus echoes the same message. In Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well he declared: “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10). He continues his line of thought in John 4:14 by declaring, “But whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a fount of water springing up to eternal life." A more direct invitation is found in John7:37 where Jesus shouted: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.” This invitation is further echoed at the end of the book of Revelation: "Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life" (Rev 22:17). And during this holy week we are reminded of the cry of Jesus on the cross, “I am thirsty!” (John 19:28). While Jesus was seeking relief from pain as a result of suffering on the cross, he was also identifying himself with all humanity who suffer from thirst.
Whether reference to living water in the verses above refers to God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit or Salvation, during this last week of the Lenten Campaign we are to focus on the meaning of Jesus’s death on the cross to Christians. During this week it is also a time for us to remember that since 2010, the United Nations has declared water as a human right. At the 9th Assembly of the WCC in Porto Alegre, Brazil a statement was issued titled, “Water for Life”. It read: “Water is a symbol of life. The Bible affirms water as the cradle of life, an expression of God's grace in perpetuity for the whole of creation (Gen 2:5ff). It is a basic condition for all life on Earth (Gen 1:2ff.) and is to be preserved and shared for the benefit of all creatures and the wider creation.”
The biblical passages quoted above are suggesting that people should not be forced to pay for water, when they cannot even afford to buy food. This is, however, not the case with our experience of finding safe water for all to drink. The big corporates are pushing hard to capture as much spring water as possible and sell it at inflated profits. In many cases, they are simply filtering the tap water and then selling it at prices up to 1,000 times higher than tap water. While this may make sense in countries where tap water is not safe and people can afford to buy bottled water, for the majority of poor in Africa, safe drinking water is only a dream. This reality hit me hard in 2015 when there were floods in my country Malawi which resulted in contamination even of tap water. I observed that only 5 percent of the people were able to buy bottled water which was safe to drink. The majority of the people could not afford to buy safe drinking water. Sadly despite the fact that safe drinking water is a right for every human being, the voices of Christians in Africa are silent in making sure that governments are held accountable to provide safe drinking water for everyone.
Questions for discussion:
- How do you understand Jesus’ invitation: ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink’? (John 7:37)
- Can your community become a Blue Community?
- If yes, which criteria of being a Blue Community would you emphasise and why?
- In the last week of the Lenten Campaign, what do you feel God is calling you to do about water?