Justice and Fresh Water

The issues surrounding clean water and its availability have their place in the New Evangelization and in the advancement of Benedict XVI’s “human ecology.”

Many of us in clean water professions wish more people talked about what we do. If bishops and pontiffs take clean water seriously, shouldn’t everyone? After all, clean water—and plenty of it—is essential for human life and the common good.

Helping us understand all this is the new book Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis by Christiana Z. Peppard, assistant professor of Theology, Science, and Ethics at Fordham University.

I recently interviewed Dr. Peppard about her book and her work. We had so much to talk about that the conversation took three blog posts to publish and covered topics like water’s place in supporting human life, threats to the poor (especially women and children) from poor water policy and planning, and how even wealthy countries suffer when priorities go wrong.

“Water is a short-term need, and in many places it’s an immediate crisis,” Dr. Peppard said in her interview. “And as we grapple with these discrete and urgent situations, we also have to consider long-term policies that respect the primacy of waters for all forms of life, industry, agriculture, economy, and civilization.” 

In her interview and in her book, Peppard builds on magisterial statements on human life, justice, and the environment. This makes her work more than a study of natural-resource crises. It also demonstrates a type of New Evangelization. By bringing the Gospel to an issue like fresh water scarcity, Peppard and those like her are baptizing a worldly, policy-thick discussion with the living waters of Jesus Christ. And this has a way of getting people’s attention.

Water use and crises

“I’ll just have a glass of water,” we say to a waiter. But after reading Peppard’s book you will have a newfound appreciation for the glass placed before you. This is especially true for those of us in nations that take clean water for granted.

“Usually, in the U.S., we are not aware of our water sources,” Peppard said in her interview. “But every now and then, events like the [Charleston] West Virginia chemical spill present terrifying evidence of just how vital and susceptible fresh water is—not just for people in developing nations, but for everyone, worldwide.”

Peppard explains that fresh water is so susceptible because there isn’t as much as we might think. Only 2.5 percent of Earth’s water is fresh water. Of this, more than two-thirds is frozen at or near the poles. About a third is underground. The remainder—a meager 0.3 percent—is scattered irregularly across the planet’s surface. As for human consumption, industrial uses account for 22 percent of available fresh water. Domestic use requires only 8 percent. The rest—over two-thirds of our demand—is used for agriculture.

When you add this all up, Peppard and others tell us, we discover a few problems. One of them involves how we use water for agriculture and meat production.

[I]ndustrial-style agriculture is not sustainable from a water-use perspective: most agricultural production in the past century has come from tapping into deep, finite groundwater sources. Tapping this water is like mining a valuable resource because, once it’s consumed, the sources do not replenish on any humanly meaningful timescale. Some cities, such as Beijing and Mexico City—not to mention parts of California’s Central Valley—are quite literally sinking as the groundwater beneath them disappears due to consumptive uses.

Peppard devotes an entire chapter of Just Water to the details and impacts of agricultural water use. Take, for instance, the devastation of the Aral Sea by the former Soviet Union. The communist regime’s insistence on irrigating far-off crops eventually required the diversion of most of the Aral’s fresh water sources. Over time a spectacular body of fresh water—with interconnected ecosystems, economies, and communities—all but disappeared.

More recently, in the West, new technologies to extract natural gas have companies using millions of gallons of local water, blending it with proprietary chemicals, and injecting it all deep underground. This shatters shale deposits and releases natural gas. It also forces back to the surface much of the now-contaminated water.

This process, called “hydraulic fracking,” comes with great promise, but it does have people worried. The use and disposal of the contaminated water is largely unregulated. And because of the proprietary nature of the chemical additives, we don’t really know what’s remaining underground—and thus how it may impact the groundwater that other people drink—or what could be contaminating the billions of gallons collected and stored at the surface.

Peppard evenhandedly lays out the promises and dangers of fracking. But she and many others—including local Catholic dioceses—are nonetheless wary about how both public and private organizations are going about their jobs. In Just Water Peppard notes that “it’s reasonable to ask what’s in our water before we drink it, shower with it, or give it to our children to quench their thirst.”

Then there are the companies that bottle water and the people who buy so much of it. These industries can compete for groundwater at the expense of local use, and their product results in lots of plastic waste. While bottled water is necessary in places with water scarcity or contamination, elsewhere it creates artificial needs where consumers already have a much cheaper, local alternative: their tap.

Of special interest is a chapter about the demands on and the misuses of the Jordan River. Peppard nicely weaves together the history of our Christian faith, the sacramental life of the Church, water-quality science, geo-political tensions, and management practices. The damage done to this sacred river is troubling in its own right. It also showcases more general water issues occurring across the globe—issues that naturally blend faith, reason, healthy profit motives, and a basic need for human life. In her interview, Peppard says that

one of the real difficulties in ensuring an appropriate stance towards water is that politicians and business people are not usually oriented towards long-term outcomes. They focus on re-election or on profit/growth. They don’t focus on the integrated functioning of watersheds in the long term. This short-term attention…is deleterious, risky, and pernicious to the protection of our most vital resources, like fresh water, upon which the possibility of all life depends.

Peppard is not alone in this. “Without water, life is threatened,” notes the Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church (par. 485). “Therefore the right to safe drinking water is a universal and inalienable right.”

Peppard naturally calls attention to this statement, as well as similar ones by various bishops and by Benedict XVI. That magisterial words can be so well integrated into a book on water pollution and policy tells us something, especially in this age of New Evangelization: when Catholics engage issues such as fresh water availability, we’re in fact doing something more.

The natural environment as the new Areopagus

Benedict XVI uniquely linked our duties toward human life and our duties toward the environment. His frequent contributions to Catholic ecological thought—most importantly his continuation of Bl. John Paul II’s concept of “human ecology”—prompted many, even those in the secular world, to call the Bavarian pontiff the “Green Pope.”

Peppard hopes that eco-teachings like those of Benedict XVI encourage Catholics to become increasingly involved in water issues. If so, they may then help bring about sound, moral water policies and planning. “It’s a pretty basic and powerful insight,” Peppard said. “Human flourishing is not best measured by economic indicators alone.”

Of course, the Church is “not a water management entity,” she says. But “[Catholic] principles resonate with some deep concerns about fresh water scarcity and ethics—especially questions of value and human life—in the 21st century. There is wisdom here, and we need to pay attention to it, because water is and will continue to be a fundamental right-to-life issue.”

In working alongside secular water advocates, Peppard thus brings the Church—its scriptures, its teachings, and its witness—to places and to people that may not otherwise encounter or appreciate it.

Benedict XVI did exactly this. In his 2011 trip to Germany, for instance, he spoke about the environment to the nation’s parliament, even though many on the left were boycotting his presence. He began by reflecting on the origins of the eco movements in European politics during the 1970s. “Young people had come to realize that something is wrong in our relationship with nature, that matter is not just raw material for us to shape at will, but that the earth has a dignity of its own and that we must follow its directives.”

While noting that he was not advancing this or that political view, he concluded that “[i]f something is wrong in our relationship with reality, then we must all reflect seriously on the whole situation and we are all prompted to question the very foundations of our culture.” The Holy Father certainly meant this as an opening. After all, questioning the very foundations of our culture—a culture of death, that is—is to varying degrees the mission of front-line advocates for the unborn, those engaged in the defense of marriage, and those who champion sustainable lifestyles.

Thus in Germany the pontiff demonstrated how to use ecology to build relationships with those who do not know or accept Church teachings. Without seeking some level of trust and commonality, it becomes nearly impossible to preach the Gospel. For many in this secular age, says Dr. Peppard, ecology can be that point of connection for building trust.

“I find that across all audiences—Catholic, secular, media; parish-level, university-level, environmental advocates—the most common response [to magisterial words on ecology] is genuine surprise, sometimes bordering on shock, at the fact that the Church has a robust and continually developing legacy of social and ecological thought; and, in many cases, the surprise becomes delight.”

While there is much work ahead to educate the public and private sectors, consumers, and infrastructure rate-payers about issues of clean water and the sustainable use thereof, the work brings many benefits. As Dr. Peppard can teach us, it is quite Catholic to protect and conserve clean water, and to maintain its place for present and future generations. That we can also introduce our neighbors to Jesus Christ in the process shouldn’t come as a surprise. Given how deeply water flows throughout scripture and the life of the Church, it makes sense that working for clean water here and now is about more than saving ecosystems and human lives. It’s also about saving souls.

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About William L. Patenaude 36 Articles
William L. Patenaude MA, KHS has a master's degree in theology, is a mechanical engineer, and has recently retired from a 34-year career at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. He has been writing and speaking on the Catholic perspective of ecology since 2004. His debut novel A Printer’s Choice (2018), has been described as "a smart, suspenseful Catholic sci-fi novel, with a richly imagined fictional world."