Towards Water Justice By Basil Ibrahim and Elizabeth Auma

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Internationally, reports from a multitude of sources reveal the increased incidence of what has been called extreme water stress. More than mere shortages of water, this is an expression of how close large human settlements come to the exhaustion of water reserves. The cases of Chennai, India) and Cape Town, South Africa have made global headlines, but beside them, an increasing number of less prominent human settlements are approaching their Day Zeroes – the day when the water resources that they are customarily dependent on are completely depleted. With increased population growth and urbanization, these cases are harbingers that those interested in social and ecological justice must pay particular attention to.

But there’s more to think about than just whether or not water reserves exist in large enough volume. A recent television exposé on the quality of the waters of the Nairobi River, revealed the complex world of interconnection implied in water flows. Tracking the flow of the river from the highlands west of the city to the Indian Ocean, it showed how human and industrial waste affect the quality of water available for drinking, domestic use and agriculture. Significantly, it revealed how negligence, a laxity of regulatory enforcement and ignorance had led to the accumulation of biological and chemical toxins that turned a source of life into a flow of poison. Every day actions like quenching thirst, watering animals or agricultural holdings become mechanisms for the transfer of accumulated bio toxins and carcinogens into human bodies.

Through work like this, we see how humanity is implicated both as potential victims of water deficiency, and as its causes. Questions of access and quality are significant in Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’, on the care of the earth as our common home. Emphasising the centrality of water to human life[1], the encyclical underscores the fact that human economic and social choices have the potential to turn water into a deadly presence.[2] It is important to use the lenses of interconnectedness and interdependence that are central to Laudato Si’ to think about our own use of water resources and the implications of our other consumption choices on the quality of water reserves. How do we dispose of our waste? Do we use materials like plastics or toxic chemicals that will ultimately degrade water reserves?

At JENA, the Jesuits Justice and Ecological Network, we prioritize the articulation of resource issues as a matter of justice. With Pope Francis’ exhortation in Laudato Si’ we pay attention to how the marketisation of water resources creates a bifurcation of service. The wealthy can dig their own boreholes, invest in filtration mechanisms or purchase water on the market, but this is not the case for the majority of the world’s poor.[3]. We also attend to the consequences of the renunciation by many state authorities of the duty to provide safe, clean water. Poor water regulation and a culture that priorities short-term gain and private interest produce an expression of extreme water inequality. In this way, access to water conditions the exercise of other human rights[4]. This is clear not just in urban settings, but also in the increasing disputes over access to water for irrigation and animals in arid lands. Where powerful interests like industrial agriculture can dominate water resources to the detriment of the poor and vulnerable, we also see age-old livelihood practices rendered impossible.

Thus, through practices of abstraction, harvesting, waster disposal and distribution, our utilisation of water connects us to the material and social welfare of other inhabitants of our planet. This is as much a question of ethics as it is one of economics and development. In the words of one examen – [5] I ask for the grace to see how my life choices impact creation and the poor and vulnerable.

It is for this reason that we seek an integral ecology, and an integral development with water at its centre. The just utilisation of the earth’s waters flows weave together a fabric of justice across the myriad focus areas of JENA’s social centres: Migration, Climate Justice, Sustainable Agriculture, Ecological Conservation, Economic and Social Justice.

[1] Fresh drinking water is an issue of primary importance, since it is indispensable for human life and for supporting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Sources of fresh water are necessary for health care, agriculture and industry. (28)

[2] ibid One particularly serious problem is the quality of water available to the poor. Every day, unsafe water results in many deaths and the spread of water-related diseases, including those caused by microorganisms and chemical substances. Dysentery and cholera, linked to inadequate hygiene and water supplies, are a significant cause of suffering and of infant mortality. Underground water sources in many places are threatened by the pollution produced in certain mining, farming and industrial activities, especially in countries lacking adequate regulation or controls. (29)

[3] Even as the quality of available water is constantly diminishing, in some places there is a growing tendency, despite its scarcity, to privatize this resource, turning it into a commodity subject to the laws of the market. Yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. (30)

[4] Laudato Si’ – 185 –

[[5] In any discussion about a proposed venture, a number of questions need to be asked in order to discern whether or not it will contribute to genuine integral development. What will it accomplish? Why? Where? When? How? For whom? What are the risks? What are the costs? Who will pay those costs and how? In this discernment, some questions must have higher priority. For example, we know that water is a scarce and indispensable resource and a fundamental right which conditions the exercise of other human rights.


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