Week 5

This week's reflection discusses the tension between St Francis of Assisi's praise of water as a precious "sister" created by God and a privatisation and economic exploitation of this life-giving element that comes at the cost of dying rivers and water bodies. While close to a billion people in the world are deprived of access to safe drinking water, this resource becomes "blue gold" in the eyes of agro-economic investors. "Its prime purpose is not to quench people's thirst, but to make money," writes Dom Tomás Balduino, bishop emeritus of Goiás, Brazil. His contribution first appeared in 2009.
Week 5

Pirapora, Brazil. (cc) Guilherme Cecílio

Sister Water or Blue Gold?

A biblical reflection by Dom Tomás Balduino*

Be praised, My Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble,
and precious, and pure.
(From Canticle of the Sun by Saint Francis of Assisi)

At the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Ricardo Petrella, a professor, author, and water activist from Italy, reported that Nestlé and Coca Cola are buying up large tracts of land in Brazil that contain permanent water springs. Those multinationals are investing vast sums of money in Europe in the bottled water market. Their aim in South America is the same. The International Monetary Fund has put pressure on African governments to accept water privatization as a condition for their receiving subsidies for development. There are rivers in Brazil that are dead through the discharge of industrial chemical waste. That is one way in which water is exploited in favour of production. That is happening even in the ancient ecological sanctuaries in our country such as Bacia do Xingu. The water of the River Fresco, that used to be clear, has now become full of sediment through widespread gold-mining. Fish have been found that are blind through lack of light.

The controversial decision to divert the São Francisco River has the market as its sole aim through concentrating water for irrigation of single-crop farming of sugar cane and agro-business in general. The sparse population of the North East will receive nothing in the form of water supply, which is the most expensive in the world. It is the blue gold. Its prime purpose is not to quench people's thirst, but to make money, particularly in light of global warming and the race for drinking water. According to UN statistics, 884 million human beings do not have access to drinking water, and in 2025 sixty percent of the world population will probably live in regions affected by water shortages.

By contrast, the vision of St Francis of Assisi is very much present today at the grass roots, not only in Brazil but throughout Latin America, in the indigenous, black and peasant communities. It has been the indigenous peoples who have maintained the mystical human relationship with Mother Earth and Sister Water, and have protected what remains to be preserved in nature.

Turning directly to the Gospel, in his conversation with the Samaritan woman (John 4: 7-14), Jesus requests her, "Give me something to drink". The insight that the popular communities draw from this is the surprising bond that we have with our own well, and our identification with water, which turns us into fountains of living water. "Drinking from one's own well" as St John of the Cross said. This insight comes to us from times long past. Water is part of the biblical story at key moments in the life of the people of God. But it is also present in the spiritual life of other peoples, who, like the people of the Bible, have made their own essential contribution to the present daily growing awareness of humankind.

Out of that mystical vision comes the strength to fight in defence of water as a vital common good for all living beings, never as a commodity.

Care of water and the struggle to protect it against privatization policies can only be achieved through a fresh global relationship with the created world, with nature, with the environment.

Let us remember the Earth Charter, a genuine achievement of the people, the banner of a new struggle, which should be taken into account in all decision-making by all peoples in defence of the Earth, our home, respecting and caring for life, for the integrity of the environment, for social and economic justice, for democracy and peace.

This is how the precious Earth Charter concludes:

"Let ours be a time remembered for the awakening of a new reverence for life, the firm resolve to achieve sustainability, the quickening of the struggle for justice and peace, and the joyful celebration of life."


In the UN Human Development Report from 2006, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva wrote: "Clean, accessible and affordable water is a human right." Despite these clear words the Brazilian government is now reported to have been among those who actively opposed the affirmation of the human right to water in the final ministerial declaration of the World Water Forum which took place 16-22 March in Istanbul in 2009.

* Bishop Dom Tomás Balduino is bishop emeritus of Goiás. He has dedicated his life to supporting the struggle of the poorest in Brazil for their rights. Today he is adviser to the Pastoral Land Commission, an organization of the Roman Catholic Church that fights for the rights of rural workers and peasants in Brazil.

Ideas for study and reflection

When we talk about the privatization and commercialization of water we often focus on large corporations making a profit at the expense of poor communities’ access to clean water. What about our own role in the system? To whom do those corporations sell their products? Who benefits from the shareholder values they create?
Reflect on:  When does each of us "profit" from the privatization of water at the expense of others, as we buy and consume, or as we invest our savings?

Questions for discussion

    1. Do you recall having seen or heard of a river dying in your locality?
    2. What memories do you have of carrying water from your own well, from a river or pond? In today’s commercialized world, when you are buying a bottle of water, do you ever think of the days when we were doing fine without bottled water?
    3. Have you ever thought about the possible consequences of privatization of water  in your own context?

      What you can do

      • Is it possible for you to organize a visit with a group, e.g. with your Bible study group or church youth, to one of the water sources, rivers, or lakes where you live? Consider going to a local water body and having a short service of thanksgiving for water. Maybe there is also an opportunity to combine reflection with practical action, like a river clean-up?
      • Find out about what is causing water and river pollution where you live. Organize a river cleanup in your community. It's a great way to reconnect your family, friends and neighbours with the streams and rivers in your backyard. A very helpful tool is the River Cleanup Organizer's Handbook by American Rivers, which includes important organizational and safety tips.
      • In 2006 Brazilian and Swiss churches have issued a joint ecumenical declaration on water as a human right and public good. They committed themselves "to convince our churches, congregations, institutions, ecumenical groupings and partner organizations to support this declaration and to pray for its aims; together with the movements and NGOs  interested in these issues, to motivate public opinion, political forces and the population of our countries to work in favor of the terms set out in this declaration."
        The declaration is currently already available in English, French, Spanish, German, and Portuguese. Can you translate the text into your own local language?
      • Talk to your church leadership, or send a letter with a copy of the declaration, to make them aware of this excellent example of ecumenical cooperation and asking them to consider signing on to it.
      • Use St Francis' Canticle of the Sun each day as part of your prayers for water justice this week. Perhaps this beautiful and ancient prayer also inspires you to paint or draw pictures of sister water, brother fire. You can find the full text here in English, French, German, Spanish as well as in the original Umbrian dialect.


      Opinions expressed in biblical reflections do not necessarily reflect EWN and WCC policy. This material may be reprinted freely, providing credit is given to the author.