March 22 is World Water Day
When it is depicted in advertisements, water almost always has pleasant associations. Spruikers know that images of a sunny beach or of a quiet green river bend will help sell property and lure people to holiday destinations. When we think of water, too, we often imagine the trickle of a crystal stream, the power of a waterfall, the taste of a glass of clear water after a hot day, and the sudden life and joy that comes to a drought-afflicted community as rains come and streams flow. We associate water with a bountiful and well-provided life. It is a gift.
Water is also a gift that we often take for granted. Years of drought and of drying rivers, however, have shown that we need to care for it. It can turn from abundance to scarcity. We know that if water fails, our food, our security from fire and flood, and our liveable environment will also come under threat.
Our recent experience of bushfire, too, has alerted us to what the future may hold in store for us all if we do not address climate change. We might expect more frequent and severe droughts and bushfires, less regular rainfall, often in the form of hurricanes and violent storms followed by floods, and the consequent pollution of streams and reservoirs. The water supply of remote communities will come under increasing threat and cities will rely more on expensive desalination plants and purified waste water. Much land now available for farming will become desert. The lives of everyone will be changed for the worse.
In developing nations, the burden of climate change and associated drought will fall most heavily on the poor. It will affect the crops and herds they live on, the quality of the water they drink and the washing on which hygiene and health depend. Lack of water can easily develop into famine. The shortage of water will also lead to competition for it between nations and corporations. Instead of being a gift that is free for all in society, it will become a prized commodity to be bought and sold on the market, with the inevitable further impoverishment of the poor.
When we think of water, we see the importance of all the delicate relationships that make up our world, and the need to pay attention to them in the way in which we work and live. That has been the emphasis of Pope Francis when he speaks of attending both to the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth. At Jesuit Social Services, we have tried to make that central in all our work and our processes. It leads us to see that water is not an unfailing resource to be used for private gain. It is a gift to our society and to our world. And as a gift, it lays on us a mission.
We are required to pay attention to all the factors that affect rainfall and drought, and order our society in a way that makes demands on everyone, but also benefits everyone, especially the most poor. Bountiful water depends on a shared respect for the common good. It dries up in any economic framework that is built on individual competition and exploitation of resources without thought for their mutual interdependence.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.