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Water - Earth - Theology


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 1/2009, P. 17-28
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    In Belem (Brazil) in January the "Third World Forum Theology and Liberation" will take place under the motto "Water, Earth, Theology - a Different World is Possible". FRANK KÜRSCHNER-PELKMANN gives an survey of the water issue [see also], which will become more acute as result of the climate change, and points to the church commitment.

Issues of access to water are issues of justice. This discovery increasingly finds acceptance in the international water debate and also in the church discourse. The consideration of water issues therefore increasingly shifts from the scientific-technical to the political and social level. This paradigm shift in the last two decades has also consequences for the theological reflection, particularly in countries which are suffering from lack of water and a very unequal access to clean water. In his book "God's Spirit Comes in the Water. Water Crisis, Religions and Ecological Spirituality" the Brazilian theologian Marcelo Barros works out how closely water use and economic system are connected:

"It is useless to defend nature and to worry about water as long as the system that is the real cause for the alarming picture does not change. There will be no real remedy for the destruction of environment and the water crisis, if the prevailing socio-economic development model is not revised." {1}

In the Catholic Church, but also in many Protestant churches of the world and in church relief organizations such assessments increasingly meet with approval and are a motive power for a commitment to water and the richness of life. Against this background it becomes understandable that the "Third World Forum Theology and Liberation", which takes place in January 2009 in Belem, has the motto "Water, Earth, Theology - a Different World is Possible" {2}.


Increasingly Scarce and Increasingly Expensive

Clean drinking water becomes increasingly scarce on earth. Worldwide more than one billion people suffer from acute water shortage. The reasons for it are manifold, the consequences disastrous. The potable water in the world is very unequally distributed. There are water-rich countries such as Finland and Canada and countries with great scarcity of water as e.g. Mali or Yemen. The growing population, the great need of water in agriculture and industry as well as the high pollution levels of many rivers and increasingly also of the groundwater resources exacerbate the problems. About 70 percent of the water used by people is used in agriculture, 20 percent in industry and ten percent in households {3}.



The competition for clean water increases in many regions of the world and those who in countries with "water stress" do not have enough money and influence often depend on the polluted water of rivers or lakes. Every year on the world several million people, including a high proportion of children die of water-related diseases. According to UNICEF estimates every day 4.000 children die, because they lack clean drinking water {4}.

In the poor countries of the world only a minority of the population is connected to public water systems {5}. Domestic water connections usually exist only in the cities and there only in the districts of the prosperous and rich population. And even for that privileged minority the supply is often insufficient. In many large cities of poor countries the tap-water must be boiled before you can drink it. Not infrequently, only a few hours a day water comes from the pipe, sometimes even only a few days in the week. One reason is that the provision of sufficient potable water is becoming increasingly difficult because the groundwater resources have been overexploited and the water on the earth's surface is polluted.

That in many of those cities between a third and a half of the water gets lost on its way between waterworks and water-tap has all the more an unfavourable effect. A part of the water is illegally tapped, admittedly not only by thirsty residents of the poor districts but sometimes also by prosperous enterprises that want to save costs. But the greatest part of the water losses results from leaks. In cities like Dar es Salaam in Tanzania most of the pipes date from the colonial era and have since then been poorly maintained. Only eight percent of the city with over a million inhabitants is connected to the waterworks. There is often a quite unsatisfactory performance of the water suppliers whereas the water prices increase. The collection of the charge for water from customers who do not want to understand why they are to pay more and more money for getting rarely water from the pipe is therefore one of most unrewarding tasks in Dar es Salaam and other major cities in Africa, Asia and Latin America {6}.

Even those who are not connected to the waterworks are affected by that dreadful state. Those who in the slum area have at least some money at their disposal buy their drinking water in cans and buckets from water sellers. They come with hand carts or tank trucks into the poor district and provide water that they have often got from a private tap in a prosperous district. In case the price of water increases there the poor too must accept price increases. But they pay for their water anyway far more than the wealthy, because the water traders want to cover their costs and make a profit.

In many rural areas in the South of the world the supply of drinking-water is even more precarious. Women and girls must often walk many miles to reach the nearest well or river and then laboriously carry home a heavy water canister on their head.



The long distance must often be covered several times a day in order to supply a large family with a minimum of water. The consequence is that many girls cannot attend school and the working day of the women becomes even longer. Particularly in Africa women have in addition not only to care for household and children but also bear the main burden of the agricultural work. Gender injustice is therefore considerably increased by a precarious access to water. The interest of women in wells near their houses is accordingly great. Even simple technical facilities for collecting rainwater, as they are promoted by relief organisation like Misereor, are a relief for women.


Growing Conflicts over Water and Land

"Whiskey is for drinking, water for fighting for it", the American writer Mark Twain is supposed to have described the conflicts over the scarce item water in the times of "Wild West" in the USA. The global conflicts since then intensified, both within countries and between states. The conflicts between farmers and stockbreeders in various poor countries of Africa have taken on threatening proportions. Kenya is an example for it. When in the barren North of the country cattle breeders experience that the rains fail to arrive and the first cattle die of thirst there are often armed conflicts between the groups of herdsmen over remaining pasture land and wells. In the past such conflicts were fought out with spears, whereas today the use of Kalashnikovs claims a large number of lives {7}.

During prolonged droughts many herdsmen families go into the southern part of Kenya, which is rich in water, in areas where meanwhile the fields of farming families are close together. The herds inevitably come up to those fields and not infrequently feed on the cultivated grain or vegetable plants. As a result there will be verbal and often violent confrontations {8} which the international press then simplifying calls "ethnic conflicts".

There are actually many factors which let disputes become bloody battles. The global climate change has the consequence that in regions of East Africa with already low precipitation it rains even more rarely. In addition the times of precipitation become more unpredictable; you can no longer rely on traditional knowledge about the rainy seasons. And when it rains at last the rains are often short and violent and contribute little to the growth of plants and to building up groundwater.



At the same time the pressure on the farmers increases to produce more and more in order to hold their ground on a liberalized agricultural market open for foreign competitors.

That and a rapid population growth lead to the fact that in large parts of Kenya even the smallest areas are used for agriculture and horticulture and that the farmland is extended into the savannah areas. This occupation and settlement of land robs the cattle breeders of the access to former pastures. A particular cause of conflict is the rapid expansion of irrigated agriculture (especially with the growing of flowers for export) along the Kenyan rivers and lakes {9}. The modern export-oriented agriculture brings high foreign exchange revenues but robs the cattle breeders of the access to water. Faced with the choice either to let their cattle die from thirst or to drive them across the new fields to the water they often decide for the latter.

Not only in Kenya the conflicts over land and water are closely intertwined. Another example is Egypt. Since the construction of the Aswan dam in Upper Egypt on the lower reaches the annual Nile flood, which for thousands of years supplied the fields right and left of the river with water and nutrients, does no longer happen. Now the farmers are dependent on motor pumps to irrigate their fields. Small farmers must often borrow pumps from big farmers who often secure the preferred access to the water. Driven into a corner many small farmer families have no choice but to sell their land to the big farmers and to move into the poor districts of the large cities {10}.

Similar conflicts over pumps and water occur in India, where conflicts with large groups as e.g. Coca-Cola Company are added. The boom in soft drink and bottled water sales in India confronts the suppliers with the problem how they can get the required large quantities of water for the filling of the bottles, but especially for the cleaning of used bottles. In some Indian federal states the possession of a plot of land suffices to have the right to drill wells and to extract any amount of water. These rules come from the time when wells were sunk by hand and the water transported in buckets. But now deep wells are drilled and pumps extract large quantities of groundwater for the industrial use. In Plachimada in the federal state of Kerala in southern India that action of Coca-Cola led to a conflict with the local peasant families that got nation-wide attention. The heavy over-exploitation of water resources by the international group had the result that the local population's wells of low depth dried out {11}.



International Conflicts

More and more conflicts over the increasing shortage of water also occur between neighbouring states. Worldwide there are more than 200 transboundary rivers. In some cases, as e.g. on the Rhine, treaties between the countries bordering on the river prevent the over-exploitation of water or too much pollution. In other cases, there are always conflicts about the question who may use how much water. The political conflicts between the countries bordering on the Jordan - Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine - are aggravated by the dispute over the use of the Jordan's water {12}. Israel is up to now not ready to return Golan Heights to Syria, because it fears that the neighbouring country could then divert water from the sources of the Jordan and thus less water would flow into the river and the Sea of Galilee, one of the major drinking water sources of Israel. The Palestinians are embittered because Israel refuses them the access to the Jordan bank and the use of water of the Jordan. At present Israel, Syria and Jordan use so much water from the Jordan and its tributaries that only a fraction of the former water of the Jordan flows from the river mouth into the Dead Sea. As a consequence the water-level of the Dead Sea is constantly falling; its length has decreased from 80 to 50 km {13}.

That is not an unusual case for the "solution" of cross-border water problems. For lack of conjoint, binding agreements all the states bordering on the rivers and lakes over-exploit the existing resources. In the case of the Ganges and other rivers flowing from India to Bangladesh the Indian overuse has the consequence that so little water reaches the huge estuary delta of densely populated Bangladesh that more and more salty ocean water flows in and severely damages agriculture and fishing {14}. In the Mekong delta the Vietnamese peasant families suffer from a growing number of dams at the upper reaches of the river, which are seriously changing the amount of water and the conditions of its current {15}.

In recent years the awareness has internationally grown that the growing scarcity of drinking water and the competition for the remaining water have a huge conflict potential. It is feared that in the wars of the 21st century it will no longer be about oil but water. Fortunately, however, there are a whole series of initiatives to prevent such clashes.

An important step was that in 2000 in New York at a Millennium Summit of the heads of governments from 189 countries the Millennium Development Goals were formulated, including the goal of improving the water-supply. Until 2015 the number of people is to be halved who have to live without a secure access to enough clean drinking-water. The year 1990 was chosen as starting-point.



At that time about 1.2 billion people had no water-supply. The problem is that the heads of government "forgot" the just as important sanitation. Sanitary issues, toilets and human faeces are not only in many societies a topic about which one does not talk; also in the development-political negotiations it was for a long time a hushed up topic. After all, in 2002 at the UN Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg one decided on including in the catalogue of the Millennium Development Goals also to halve the number of people without sanitation by 2015. Here it is about the everyday problems of more than two billion people.

In parallel, there are numerous initiatives to reduce the water stress in many countries of the South by introducing more efficient ways of irrigation in agriculture, by reducing the industrial water consumption and the pollution of water. In the following some concepts and initiatives are to illustrate the fundamental improvement of urban water-supply.


Private Enterprises - Better and Cheaper?

In the 80s and 90s at the World Bank and other bodies of development programs a great frustration was spreading in view of the public water-supply companies in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In many places inefficiency and corruption were so widespread that development funds drained away just as the precious drinking-water. Many of those businesses seemed not to be able lastingly to improve the supply for the actual customers and in addition to provide the growing poor districts with connections, even if they were only community connections. For the sake of fairness it must be said that most of those businesses suffered from chronic financial shortages and that the authorities and the military were at the top of the list of those who did not pay their water bills. In order to resolve the plight the World Bank and state institutions of the Western development aid placed their hopes in private actors. International water companies were to make available their know-how and capital in order fundamentally to improve and expand the urban water-supply. Here also the neo-liberal "belief" was of importance that private enterprises will always work more efficient than municipal and state ones.

The interest of many funding agencies in a private participation met with the interest of some international companies, as a "global player" to participate in the business with the "blue gold". Apart from the major French water companies Suez and Veolia mainly British companies at first pressed towards the international markets.



But also the German RWE group wanted at the end of the 90s to profit by the apparently lucrative international water business. Through the acquisition of Thames Water (the private water supplier of London with many international activities) and American Water Works (the largest private U.S. supplier), RWE became one of the big three of the industry.

With it, however, RWE inherited also cases of conflict, for example in the Indonesian capital Jakarta: In 1997 under the dictator Suharto Thames Water and Suez had got the concession to provide drinking-water for half of the population of the city of over a million inhabitants. But the Asian economic crisis in the late 90s destroyed all hopes to make quick profits with water. In view of the growing impoverishment of the population the supervising authorities did not agree to the drastic price increases applied for; the already approved increases triggered great resentment in the population - the more so as in view of their own losses the foreign companies greatly restricted their investment activity. Moreover, there were always conflicts with employees who were dissatisfied and compared their modest salaries with the earnings of European managers. Significant losses and a bad press in countries like Indonesia let RWE soon realize that the dream of quick water money would not come true. In 2005 the Essen group decided to concentrate again on the electricity and gas business and to limit its international water activities to Central and Eastern Europe {16}.

Suez and Veolia too had to experience that no splendid profits can be expected where the purchasing power of the population is too low. They had anyway concentrated on the "raisins" in the water business, i.e. on some large cities like Manila, Buenos Aires and Johannesburg. But in many cases even that did not pay. The billions hoped for by the World Bank they anyway did not want to invest; they mostly refrained from purchasing the rather clapped-out water plants and pipeline networks. Instead of this they entered into management contracts which did not require significant capital investment. That only protected against capital losses but not from conflicts and business setbacks.

The groups had underestimated the resistance of wide circles of the population against the privatization of water as well. People rightly feared that private enterprises would, in order to make a profit, increase the water prices even more than local firms. In the Bolivian Cochabamba there was even a national uprising that in 2005 forced the government to terminate the contract with the U.S. enterprise Bechtel and its partners {17}. In the Tanzanian Dar es Salaam the performance of a consortium of a British, a German and a local company was since 2003 so inadequate that in 2005 the Government terminated the contract without notice.



Because of the bad work of the private operators a British court meanwhile awarded the Tanzanian government a compensation {18}.

In the Western world too the private operators have to struggle with a poor reputation. In London the private company Thames Water has so much neglected the mains network that the water loss through leakage has risen at more than 30 percent. To the company it seemed to be cheaper to accept these losses instead of making expensive repairs and renovation work. But in view of the water shortage in southern England that proceeding did not convince the supervising authorities, and Thames Water is now forced to invest billions in order to renew the mains {19}. Also the partial privatization of the Berlin water business in 1999 has become a failure. Even the President of the Berlin Chamber of Commerce and Industry spoke in 2004 of a failed partial privatization {20}. In recent years the water prices in Berlin have risen so high that the economy has to struggle with competition disadvantages. There is also the fact that the Berlin Senate had repeatedly to settle losses of the enterprise, whereas a high profit is guaranteed to the private companies Veolia and RWE - regardless of the trading results {21}.

Because of such experiences many municipalities in the southern part of the world, but also in Europe prefer it to run themselves their water-supply and to arrange it as efficiently as possible. In Latin America the Brazilian metropolis Porto Alegre has become a model for efficiently running the municipal water works, for motivating the employees through participation, as well as for including the citizens in decision-making processes and thus increasing the identification with the supplier. In Porto Alegre meanwhile almost all families are connected to the water-supply, the water price is one of the lowest in the country, and for poor families a social tariff is granted {22}.


Commodity or Common Property of Mankind?

In the debate over the privatization of water-supply and conflicts over the scarce item water it is not only about matters of business management and efficiency. Institutions like the World Bank, but also international water companies have completely underestimated what fundamental importance people attach to water. Leonardo Boff formulated this conviction of many people like that:

"Water is no economic item as any other. Water is so closely connected with life that we must regard it as part of life and as something sacred. Life cannot be made a commodity. Water is a natural gift, a fundamental source from which 3, 8 billion years ago life on Earth originated." {23}



Water, the basis of all life, must not become a product like any other. Many thousands of citizens in Hamburg, for example, who were convinced of that wanted to prevent the privatization of water in Hamburg by a referendum. In view of the general support of that initiative the Hamburg Bürgerschaft [parliament] passed a law by which the privatization of the water-supply is ruled out.

Some years ago in South Africa there was massive protest against the transfer of the management of water-supply to international groups. In cities like Johannesburg demonstrations against the privatization policy took place, and in a joint statement of the South African Council of Churches and the Catholic Bishops' Conference of South Africa of 6 June 2002 it says:

"European companies have a great interest in extending their economic interests to the water privatization and primarily benefit from such measures. But the results of past privatizations in the water sector are appalling. For many people in South Africa, for example, especially for people with minimal income and unemployed women, the water bills suddenly shot up to half of their monthly income." {24}

In Ghana also church circles joined the opposition to the privatization of state-owned water business.

The Catholic Church in Brazil gave the "Brotherhood Campaign 2004" the motto "Water - Source of Life." With the help of that campaign the church wanted to achieve the preservation of Brazil's riches of water and to prevent the privatization of this common property. The Bishops' Conference criticized that in the interests of transnational enterprises water was made a commodity with which profits should be made. In a basic text for the campaign it says:

"It is the responsibility of every person, especially of those who have power and decision-making powers to supervise the quality of the sources of water and the access to them for all human beings and animals."

As main goal of the campaign was formulated, "We want to create in society an awareness of the fact that water is the source of life and that everyone has the right to water". One demanded a water law that establishes water-supply as a state task. Cardinal Geraldo Majella Agnelo emphasized, "We will not accept any privatization." Instead of this the democratic control in the water sector had to be intensified {25}.



Religious Beliefs and Political Commitment

In the debates about the scarce item water many believers increasingly become aware again of the great importance which water has in their religions. That is particularly true for the three monotheistic religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which came into being in the desert areas or on the edge of desert areas. Also in Hinduism water is of great importance. That is particularly obvious at holy rivers like the Ganges. In other major religions too, but also in indigenous African and Latin American religions water is seen as source of life and as a gift of the Creator or the Creators.

Those religious beliefs influence not only the resistance against privatization plans but also the commitment to the international recognition of the right to water. In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and the covenants on economic, social and cultural as well as on civil and political rights of 1966 this right is missing, whereas it is embodied in various national constitutions. Religious and non-religious initiatives in many parts of the world are committed to the international recognition of this right, as e.g. the church aid organizations Bread for the World and Misereor. They have found support by Pope John Paul II, who demanded to recognize the human right to water and to make water available to all {26}.

In November 2002 the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Human Rights passed the "General Comment No. 15" on the right to water. These comments are interpretations of the international human rights agreements. They are therefore no agreements under international law, but the comments are of a great significance for interpreting international law and for giving guidelines for the implementation of the rights in the individual countries. In the Commentary No 15 the right to water is of central importance: "If people want to live in dignity, the human right to water is essential. It is a precondition for the realization of other human rights."

In South Africa it turns out that the embodiment of such a right is of practical relevance. The claim of people in the poor districts of cities and in rural areas after the end of apartheid to get at last enough clean drinking-water gained in political weight by referring to the Constitution. As a result of that in 2000 before an election President Thabo Mbeki announced that in future every South African household should get 6000 litres of free water a month. The promise was actually implemented step by step. At the same time the mains network has been so extended that the vast majority of South Africa's population meanwhile has at least a community water-tap in the vicinity.



Now more is done in order also to improve everywhere the sanitation. It is also notable that in view of the protest actions against half a dozen participations of international companies in the water-supply of South African municipalities this policy is revised. In the last few years no new management contract with companies such as Suez and Veolia has been concluded. The right to water guaranteed by the Constitution and religious beliefs alone did not bring about those changes but considerably contributed to it.

Worldwide the interlinking of Christian initiatives for the realization of everybody's right to water is increasing. In 2006 the "Ecumenical Water Network" (ENN) was launched. This network takes up national initiatives like the campaign "Human Right Water" by Bread for the World and tries to bundle the church commitment and to support the churches' effort jointly to stand up for the realization of the right to water. In a self-portrayal of the network it says:

"The Ecumenical Water Network is an initiative of churches and church organizations which together pursue the goal worldwide to protect and promote the access to water especially for the poorest; we do it by introducing the Christian testimony into the global debate on water, by promoting community-based initiatives and solutions, by advertising water as God's gift, and by locally, nationally and internationally devoting ourselves to the task that the human right to water is to be respected and implemented." {27}

An office of the network has been set up at the Ecumenical Council of Churches in Geneva. The network succeeds in promoting at conferences and seminars the exchange of experiences of church and church-related water initiatives and in expanding the basis for the worldwide ecumenical commitment to water.

Water connects people of different faith communities around the world. After a detailed study of water in the Bible and in other religious traditions Marcelo Barros in his book "God's Spirit Comes in the Water" comes to realize:

"All religions and spiritual traditions believe that water is the sacrament of the divine presence. We are called to live together with water - not only as a practical and useful tool but as a sign of love, which is to be endured, to be respected and even to be revered ... Here it is about a personal, internal conversion, by virtue of which we defend the divine presence in the beauty of water and protect the water sources and the nature close to the rivers. But that inner conversion possibly remains ineffective if it is not immediately accompanied by the effort to start a social and socio-structural conversion."




{1} M. Barros, Gottes Geist kommt im Wasser. Wasserkrise, Religionen u. ökologische Spiritualität (Luzern 2004) 70.

{2} See

{3} See F. Kürschner-Pelkmann, Das Wasser-Buch (Frankfurt 22007).

{4} See T. Deen, Dirty Water Kills 4000 Children a Day, Inter Press Service, 28. 9. 2006.

{5} See UNDP, Bericht über die menschliche Entwicklung 2006 (Berlin 2006) 35 ff.

{6} See about the plight of drinking-water-supply in Dar es Salaam: WaterAid Tanzania, Water Reforms and PSP in Dar es Salaam (London 2003); ActionAid international, Turning off the taps (London 2004).

{7} See M. Bitala, Morden für Wasser u. Weideland, in: SZ, 21.7.2005.

{8} In 2004/2005 the Committee for Justice and Peace of the Catholic Church of Kenia illustrated one of those conflicts over land and water in Maai Mahiu and presented it in a detailed report: see the report "Catholic Church Issues Report On Clashes", East African Standard, Nairobi, 31.1.2005.

{9} See Riven over a river, in: The Economist, 29.1.2005,36.

{10} See D. Müller-Mahn, Verteilungskonflikte um knappes Nilwasser, in: INAMO Nr. 27, Herbst 2001, 30f.; B. Sakr and P. Tarcir, Landnahme am Nil, in: Le Monde diplomatique, Oktober 2007.

{11} See Brot für die Welt/FIAN, Investigating some alleged violations of human rights to water in India (Stuttgart 2004).

{12} See I. Dombrowsky, Die Wasserkrise im Nahen Osten, in: Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, 48-49/2001,30ff.; F. Pearce, Quell des Lebens u. des Streits, in: SZ, 30.7.2008.

{13} See among others Cerstin Gammelin, Die letzten Tropfen des Jordan, in: Die Zeit, 14.12.2006; J. Halaby, Mideast Conflict Slows Dead Sea Rescue, Associated Press, 7.5.2007.

{14} Rising sea levels threaten agriculture, IRINNEWS, New York, 1.11.2007.

{15} M. Macan-Markar, As Water Levels Dip, Worries over Mekong River Rise, Inter Press Service, 11.3.2004; F. Miller, Environmental threats to the Mekong Delta, Watershed, Bangkok, November 1999,38ff.

{16} See F. Kürschner-Pelkmann, "Imagine ... sauberes Wasser für alle?", Die RWE AG am internationalen Wassermarkt, Studie, KOSA (Bielefeld 2003); RWE plant Trennung vom Wassergeschäft, in: Financial Times Deutschland, 4.11.2005.

{17} J. Estermann, Die Nachbarn sind der beste Schutz, in: Wendekreis, 6/2005,36f.

{18} The water margin, in: The Guardian, 16.8.2007.

{19} See G. Zitzelberger, Unter der Sonne Englands, in: SZ, 13.6.2006; D. Claassen, London: Das Wasser wird knapp, in: Die Presse, 2.6.2006.

{20} See Wasserpreis soll erneut steigen, in: Berliner Morgenpost, 2.9.2004.

{21} See among others Kürschner-Pelkmann (note 3) 44 ff.

{22} 0. M. Viero and A. P. Cordeiro, The case for Public Provisioning in Porto Alegre, Tearfund/WaterAid (London 2003).

{23} L. Boff, Wasser ist Leben, in: Publik-Forum, 16/2006,18.

{24} Quoted after: Africa Action Website, South African Churches an NEPAD, 2002.

{25} See G. Dilger, Die Quelle des Lebens gehört allen, in: Publik-Forum, 7/2004,19f.; Umweltalarm in Brasilien, in: Wendekreis, 11/2004,33.

{26} Radio Vatikan, Mexiko: Wasser als Menschenrecht, 13.3.2006.

{27} See Website


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'