Water for Life?Exodus 17:1-7
Two scriptures today focus on living water, an issue fundamental to our generation. For the first time since creation we are asking the question who owns water? Is water a commodity to be mined and bought and sold, or is it sacred gift for the common good?
The Earth is over 4 billion years old. Over hundreds of millions of years, the Earth developed from dust particles to a large, hot, molten planet with a thin rocky crust. The climate was sulphuric, toxic to life as we know it, and at boiling temperatures, for millions upon millions of years. As steam began to condense the miracle of rain and weather cycles began. The first rains fell. Then torrential rains fell until rivers ran over the surface and pooled into great seas. For 300 million years it rained on the Earth – day and night, cooling the surface. This process created a stable climate structure – and a water cycle- atmospheric processes that connected the oceans, the air, and the land. These are what has kept Earth alive, by containing hydrogen and oxygen and preventing them from drifting into space, as on Mars. The same water that was present at creation, is the water we now have no more, no less.
Water – raw material of creation; source of life. There is such elegance of this water system, and stunning gracefulness and indeed genius within Earthâ€™s systems. No wonder we use images of the living Earth, Gaia, a self-organizing universe, Earth dance. Sacred water is not just a symbol – Water is source and sustainer of life.
But in our generation, these sacred waters are under threat. The cleansing systems of the Earth can no longer purify the water. In some areas contaminant levels are far beyond saturation point. One glass of water from Lake Ontario contains billions of toxic molecules and over three hundred known toxic chemicals. Waste water from cities return with 200 synthetic chemicals to the rivers.
To contaminate ground water is to contaminate all water. A few molecules of PCB released in Texas ended up in seals, polar bears and the breast milk of the Inuktitut peoples in the northern isolated island of Broughton: there is no safe uncontaminated place. To pollute the waters of the world is to pollute all life forms. To destroy the water cycle is to upset something of the nature of genius, something far superior to human intelligence,
But there is another threat to the living water of our planet. And that is privatization. Right now around the world companies like NestlÃ©, Coca-Cola, and Pepsi are engaged in a constant search for new water supplies to feed the insatiable appetite of the bottled water industry. In rural communities all over the world, corporate interests are buying up farmlands, indigenous lands, wilderness tracts and whole water systems, mining ground water and the last aquifers, these vast underground reservoirs, so that they can bottle water. In Rajhastan,India, Coca-Cola trucks carry away bottled water drawing it from below the fields of 50 poor villages whose harvests are worsening, and wells are depleted as the water table lowers. Village communities demand that Coca Cola leave the area immediately. But the pumps continue to draw water 24 hours per day.
In Canada a litre of bottled water can cost 5,00 times as much as a litre of tap water. Much of bottled water is just tap water slightly reprocessed. In some places bottled water may be necessary. But usually bottled water is not cleaner or safer than available water, and the cost, the production of plastics (petroleum), the garbage created and transported, the mining of aquifers and draining of wetlands are causing far more social and ecological problems than they are solving.
Recently on Quirks and Quarks, Bob MacDonald interviewed a scientist Dr. Bill Shotyk, a Canadian, director of Environmental Geochemistry at the University of Heidleberg who has been measuring antimony levels in the arctic. They expected the levels to be down because of environmental efforts, but he discovered antimony contamination was very much up. One of the main sources of antimony comes from the plastic bottles that we use for bottled water. It is also leaching into the water in the bottles that we drink. Most water bottles, after a very short life, end up in landfill or incineration sites and the result is tons of plastic slowly decomposing and seeping toxic substances into the soil, threatening to poison the water table. This is one of the reasons the United Church took a strong stand against bottled water at our last General Council.
Clean water is becoming scarce. What is scarce is valuable.
Water, in most traditional worldviews, is not considered a right but a necessity–a free gift, as in our scripture today. Now water is a commodity; a â€˜goodâ€™, an investment or a service. At times, it is a need–but never a right–because a right cannot enter into trade agreements and water IS entering into trade agreements.
Water is listed as a â€œgoodâ€ in the World Trade Organization and in the North American Free Trade Agreement, and as an â€œinvestmentâ€ in NAFTA. Apparently it was also part of the ill-fated FTAA agreement. No wonder people have been protesting these agreements. World Bank, who support this movement have said â€œOne way or another water will soon be moved around the world as oil is now.â€ Some proposed projects would reverse the flow of mighty rivers in Canadaâ€™s north.
Water for profit takes other forms as well. There are a handful of transnational corporations backed by the World Bank and the IMF aggressively taking over the management of public water services in countries around the world. According to Fortune, the annual profits of the water industry now amount to 40% of those of the oil sector; already much higher than the pharmaceutical sector… close to $1 trillion.
In no case has it resulted in more investiment and improvement of service.When privatization happens there is a dramatic rise in cost, and those who cannot pay are cut off. This is going on in Ghana right now, in South African and even in USA and England. In Cochabamba, Bolivia, the city water works were sold to Bechtel and United Utilities, one of the water barons, giving them control of the ground water, including private wells. Public water prices sky rocketted; resistance began with petitions, meetings, alternative programs and street protests. In the end there were riots, the army came in, some people were killed and the government reluctantly cancelled the agreement. The corporation is suing for future lost profit, legitimate under the free trade agreements.
There are battles about privatisation going on in Europe right now, not usually hitting the front pages, but with huge implications for the future of life in our world.
Uruguay has just held an historic referendum amending their constitution to enshrine water as a human right to be delivered to all on a non-profit basis. Hamilton, Ontario, is also experienceing the legal, environmental, and economic costs of privatizing water and are currently trying to get out of the deal that has been a fiasco. Moncton has partially privatized. So the issue is close to home. Water–is it right or commodity? Is it gift of God? or up for privatization?
Many are working at the United Nations to try to make water a human right, and a social and cultural, not an economic good. but I was shocked to learn that Canada has not supported the right to water at the UN and was the only country to vote against a 2002 resolution on water rights. We said and I quote: â€œCanada, does not accept that there is a right to drinking water and sanitationâ€. Can you believe it?
What if Moses had set up a vending machine in the desert and sold water to the thirsty people. After all, he was the guy who knew how to hit the rock and get it out. It was HIS right? Wrong What if the Samaritan woman at the well had called in her brothers with weapons to protect the well and demanded payment from Jesus and every other person who needed water. After all, she had the bucket? It was herâ€™s wasnâ€™t it?
As people of faith, we claim the earth, and water as sacred, part of a sublime and sophisticated life system. In mainstream culture to consider life as sacred is superfluous. It is legitimate to view life as a commodity and to discuss ecological ruin in credit and debit terms. Life is a market, not an intrinsic value. Yet this view is economically short-sighted, ecologically untenable, ethically reprehensible and religiously mistaken.
Earth and its life forms are not a set of resources; they are sacred. The earthâ€™s fresh water supply is finite and small–less than half of 1% of the worldâ€™s total water stock. To ruin Earthâ€™s water is offensive beyond words. Water brings life: Water IS life: What we do to water, we do to ourselves. Each of us is responsible for the sacred gift of water.