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Water: a source of conflict and a source of peace building

The 6th reflection of the Lenten Campaign: Seven Weeks for Water 2017 of the Word Council of Churches’ (WCC) Ecumenical Water Network (EWN) is by Rev. Frank Chikane.
Water: a source of conflict and a source of peace building

Digging out a reservoir for an irrigation system in Chisatha, Malawi. ©ACT/Paul Jeffrey

The 6th reflection of the Lenten Campaign: Seven Weeks for Water 2017 of the Word Council of Churches’ (WCC) Ecumenical Water Network (EWN) is by Rev. Frank Chikane.

Rev. Frank Chikane is a former Director General and Secretary of Cabinet in the presidency of South Africa under Thabo Mbeki (1999 – 2008), Khalema  Motlanthe (2008-2009) and Jacob Zuma (2009). He was also Director General in Office of Deputy President Mbeki and Deputy Secretary of the Cabinet during President Nelson Mandela’s Presidency. He is also the former general secretary of the South African Council of Churches (1987-1994). Currently, he is the moderator of the WCC’s Commission of Churches on International Affairs and is the author of many books. He is remembered for his struggle against the apartheid regime in South Africa during his student days and the rest of his adult life until 1994.

In the following reflection, relating to his own context as well as from the biblical story of Isaac’s wells, he highlights how water can be a source of conflict as well as a source of peace-building. Water has the potential to create peace when it is shared. He further explores the River Nile on the African continent as an example.



Water: a source of conflict and a source of peace building

By Rev. Frank Chikane


17 So Isaac departed from there and camped in the valley of Gerar and settled there. 18 Isaac dug again the wells of water that had been dug in the days of his father Abraham; for the Philistines had stopped them up after the death of Abraham; and he gave them the names that his father had given them. 19 But when Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of spring water, 20 the herders of Gerar quarrelled with Isaac’s herders, saying, “The water is ours.” So he called the well Esek,[a] because they contended with him. 21 Then they dug another well, and they quarrelled over that one also; so he called it Sitnah.[b] 22 He moved from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he called it Rehoboth,[c] saying, “Now the Lord has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.”

Genesis 26:17-22


There is no doubt that God created the universe in a manner that makes all of humanity, not only interdependent, but dependent on the environment within which we live. It is God’s ecosystem we cannot ignore. I understood this as a young shepherd in Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga where my family comes from, in South Africa. You knew in those grazing lands that green grass and water were critical for the survival of the stock in the same way as it was critical for us as shepherds to have water and food in those far places from home. Whilst the cattle could drink water from any source, we dug wells next to the river to have clean and healthy water. Collaborating as shepherds from different families and various places made it easier for us to have water.

But this was at times part of the conflict, if any one of us thought of the source as theirs alone, rather than a shared resource. In the Bible there are several instances of people fighting over water. The above story of Isaac digging up his ancestral wells for getting water and the local communities preventing him from getting access to the water is a case in point.

Later in life, I realized how interdependent we were with the nature around us and amongst us, and how the behaviour and our management of natural resources make us so dependent on one another.

Another Bible account, particularly the long wilderness journey of the Israelites from Egypt to Canaan, is set in a desert or semi-arid region. In the land of the Moabites, water was always a scarce commodity which determined where the Israelite sojourners would settle temporarily. This became a source of conflict between them and the Moabites who are their cousins, or brothers and sisters. In my first visit to Jordan, I was struck by the tour guide's reference to their cousins across the Jordan River.

In Ethiopia, the WCC’s Lenten campaign "Seven Weeks for Water" was launched this year as part of the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace on the African continent during the meeting of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA). There we learned about water as a scare resource and why it is critical to address the water needs and rights from a justice and rights’ perspective. The UN predicts that by 2025, two thirds of the world’s population could be living under water-stressed conditions. Therefore, it is our moral responsibility to preserve fresh water, not only for this generation, but for many generations to come.

As we share in this Lenten Campaign for water justice, my mind transports me to the challenges of water on the African continent. We have large rivers like the Congo and the Nile, whilst other parts of Africa are arid or semi-arid regions. The River Nile starts from the heart and centre of the African continent and supplies water through many countries up to Egypt. What a blessing and God-given resource! But this is threatening to become a source of conflict as this is a shared resource among the countries which are affected. The manner in which water is used in central and east Africa affects those who are at the end of the river, particularly the people of Egypt. That is why we have Nile Basin Initiative to promote peaceful cooperation among the affected countries. Globally, some have even predicted that the next world war might be around the issues of the use of a natural resource like water.

But as much as water has the potential to create conflicts between communities, it also has the potentialities to forge peace between communities, as we saw in case of Isaac, for  the people of Gerar did not fight with him when he dug the third well. So he called it Rehoboth, saying, “Now the Lord has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.” Isaac did not fight with the herders of Gerar when they claimed the water as theirs on two earlier occasions.

This teaches us that we cannot be greedy over our resources, nor can we live freely at the expense or detriment of others and still have peace among ourselves. We are forced or constrained by the ecosystem of the creator God to share the resources; together to protect and preserve them for the sake of all of us irrespective of our nationalities, national boundaries, class, gender, and so forth. For our own survival we have no choice but to make peace with our neighbours as defined by Jesus in the story of the 'Good Samaritan'. According to Jesus, we are not just expected to love our  neighbor but to go beyond, and love those we consider as our enemies. We are expected to love, and make peace with them as we cannot extricate ourselves one from another.

We read in Luke 21:19 that as Jesus entered Jerusalem, he wept because the city had not known the things that make for peace. For these were hidden from them, even today. One cannot have peace by building walls between us, to keep us away from each other, including keeping others away from the common resources that God has given us.

During this time of the Lenten Campaign on Water Justice, we are reminded about the central message of Jesus which led to his death, that he came, so that we can all have life and have it abundantly. The “all” means “all” and in “all” - Jews and Gentiles, male and female, black or white, rich and poor, young and old; from East to West, South to the North; for all of creation.


Questions for discussion:

The greatest question today is how could we miss the central message of the death and resurrection of Christ and become part of the building of walls of separation - of apartheid - as we experienced it in South Africa, until our freedom in 1994?

Why have we, as Christians, gone into the laager, to think only about Christians and not the rest of the creation and not as Jesus thought of all of created reality?

Why have we missed the simple message that God so loved the world - not Christians alone, but the world - that he gave his only begotten son to save the whole of the created reality?

Why have we missed the simple message that God brings rain for all, believers and non-believers alike?"