The Justice of a Glass of Water

May 18, 2011

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What should the Christian response be to global water injustices?

By Lauren Merritt
[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays.]
Research from every corner of the scientific world agrees that environmental degradation negatively affects the poorprimarily affects the poorkeeps the poor in poverty and away from educationcontributes to the continuing oppression of women, and that the poor are almost never responsible for the degradation that so affects them.
One critical aspect of environmental degradation is poor management of water resources.  Since 1950, the global population has doubled, while global withdrawals of water have tripled. By 2025, the water demand is expected to increase another 50%, still outpacing population growth.  Water use in wealthy nations is exponentially higher than in developing nations. Many human activities contribute to this ever-increasing water use, but the primary culprit is agriculture.
The practice of agricultural irrigation (as opposed to relying on rainfall) though immensely beneficial in the short term, has placed enormous stress on water supply, affecting groundwater levels, the ebb and flow of rivers, and natural wetlands.  Due to over-pumping for agricultural use, India and China have seen water table levels decrease two to four meters each year.  While this probably means nothing to Americans hooked up to city water, in areas where large populations rely on wells and smaller farms rely on ground water for agricultural production, this is nothing short of disastrous.  When the wells can’t reach water there is—for all practical purposes—no water.
The water usage of wealthy countries impacts the availability of water around the globe.  Our water consumption comes not only from our tap water used for drinking, cleaning and showering, but also from places we don’t consider, such as our food products- everything from flour to steak.  As an illustration, consider that in Uganda many people live on 3 gallons of water a day to handle their drinking, cooking, cleaning and hygiene needs.  That is less water than the average five minute shower.  Now consider that “it takes approximately 70,000 kg (roughly 20,000 gallons) of water to produce one kg (2.2 pounds) of beef, which is approximately thirty-five times more than the 1800-2000 kg of water needed to produce one kg of potato, wheat, alfalfa, sorghum or soybean. “
Since 1950, the global population has doubled, while global withdrawals of water have tripled.
The poor and marginalized are most at risk for water stress, but it is the diets of the industrialized, wealthier regions of the world “that demand as much as two or three times more water than do the diets in non-industrialized or industrializing regions” (148).  And we do so without experiencing the ramifications of our choices.
The privilege of wealth means that we can indulge our appetites for products like beef that draw heavily upon our water resources without a second thought.  Our demand causes a global imbalance in the availability of fresh, potable water.  Though we can subsist on less meat (can thrive on less meat, is closer to the truth), we chose to consume it in incredible quantities because of our appetites, our traditions, and the convenient availability of fast foods, generally unaware of the impact the enormous beef industry has on the world.  Not to pick on beef in particular: poultry, swine and other animal farming industries also consume large quantities of water.
“Meeting future demands [for water around the globe] will require a combination of new water sources, greater water efficiency, less food waste, and a reduced demand for water-intensive foods.” (147).
As if we needed another reason to eat less meat (over-consumption of red meat is hazardous to our health, is riddled with animal welfare concerns, land management problems, antibiotic and hormone use, and causes environmental degradation due to run off and methane) we can now add that raising animals for consumption is not an efficient use of our water resources.
I would like to hope that next generation will not be at war over water, but to make that hope reality we need to actually change our trajectory.  Policies need to be developed and supported.  Industries need to become more sustainable due to consumer and government pressure.  Consumer habits need to change at the household level.
Most of all hearts need to change.  If you are a believer in Christ, you already have a new heart.  Pray and ask God to show you his love for these people across the world who struggle every day with not having enough water to keep their children alive.  Through the Spirit and the Word of God you can see the world in light of eternal redemptive history.  You know that giving up meat twice a week to place less demand on our water resources won’t harm you.  You know that a five-minute instead of fifteen-minute shower will save you on your water bill and glorify God if your heart is to serve and protect those in need.
The most remarkable thing about the changes we need to collectively make is that they can hardly be considered sacrifices.  We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, regardless of the cost. We have the example of Christ, who bore the wrath of God against our sins, for our good so that we could be reconciled to God through faith.  In light of our great salvation, orchestrated by a loving and merciful God, carried out by Jesus the obedient and sacrificial servant, and applied to our hearts by the compassionate Holy Spirit—is it such an unbearable burden to conserve water in our homes and make wiser consumer choices to change the course of the world for the good of the poor and suffering?  Can we give up two gallons of the two hundred we use each day? Can we come together as the body of Christ and alter the current destructive direction of global water management? Can we show the world that Christians care about the poor, even those we cannot see?  Can we show the world the light of Christ by living lightly here, because our inheirtance is in His heavenly kingdom to come?
I think we can.  But will we?
All statistics and references from Keeping God’s Earth, The Global Environment in Biblical Perspective (Noah J. Toly, Daniel I. Block), Part Four: Water Management.  I highly recommend this very Biblically and scientifically solid book to anyone
Lauren is a wife, mother, seminary student, and gardening and local foods enthusiast.  Favorite activities include gardening with her two-year-old son, cooking with fresh ingredients, horseback riding – and of course writing.

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