“Water has no enemy,” says a proverb often heard in southern Nigeria. Beside featuring in many aphorisms, water provides the inspiration for the naming of many people in that part of the world. For example, the full name of Ameze is Ameze i si ofo, meaning “fresh water doesn’t cause perspiration.” Amenaghawon is short for Amenaghawon i le s’omwan, meaning “the water reserved for you will never run from you” or “a person’s destiny is unique.” And Eze i mwen eghian literally translates as “the river has no enemy.” Another, Amenovbiye, metaphorically depicts water as a sibling in the manner of St. Francis of Assist: “sister water, brother water.”
More strikingly, this naming practice is reinforced by a communal spirituality that venerates water as a deity. This deity is incarnated in Olokun, the water goddess of abundance, fertility and prosperity, who in her aqueous essence regulates the biology and economics of life.
These basic but fundamental insights impose a moral responsibility on the global community to respectfully preserve and conserve, sustain and maintain, and protect and care for water bodies: wells and springs, fountains and streams, rivers and lakes, on which without exception we all depend for sustenance and survival.
Pope Francis confirms this belief in Laudato Si’ (LS): Water “is indispensable for human life and for supporting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Sources of fresh water are necessary for health care, agriculture and industry” (LS 28).
Beyond reverence, the sum of this spirituality of deference toward water consists in the realization formulated by Christiana Peppard, Professor of Theology, Science and Ethics at Fordham University (USA), who affirms that fresh water “is both sui generis and a sine qua non for human beings and ecosystems.”
From the deep wells of the traditional nomenclature springs the incontrovertible truth that – similar to the body of our planet – “we human beings are watery, embodied creatures; like most other living things, we depend on water for survival.” Whether we admit it or not, fluidity and liquidity constitute our being on which is inscribed the attendant crisis of water scarcity and security, availability and accessibility, conflict and contestation, pollution and control.
For many people in Africa, water is a scarce commodity and a precious resource. Today, water scarcity has translated into “water poverty” for many people, especially the poor: “Water poverty especially affects Africa where large sectors of the population have no access to safe drinking water or experience droughts that impede agricultural production. Some countries have areas rich in water while others endure drastic scarcity. One particularly serious problem is the quality of water available to the poor” (LS 28-29).
In Benin, water was the emotional center of the whole community, and this is perhaps the most important dimension. Long before the practice of sinking boreholes and the sale of water in plastic bags – to date popularly known as “pure water” – the task of finding and fetching water for domestic use seemed like a communal enterprise. The city council or water board, as it was known, provided water only infrequently, sometimes fortnightly at an ungodly hour in the dead of night. A nocturnal gathering of people from the neighborhood around the public “tap” was a regular and public ritual – so were the conflicts that often erupted, when, for instance, a drowsy neighbor felt justly aggrieved at being pushed out of the long line or caused to spill some of his or her precious commodity of liquid.
Water creates enemies
Today, incessant conflicts around a single source of water in the dead of night may seem like remote tales reminiscent of a bygone era. Yet, considering the endemic and intractable hydrological and ecological challenges facing several African countries, not much seems to have changed.
Nor is this a problem peculiar to Africa. The struggle for fresh water is a conflict that has dogged humanity from time immemorial and in our day and age shows little sign of de-escalation – whether it is the controversial allotment of Colorado River water to the State of California in the US, or the threat of war with which Egypt vociferously deters countries of the Nile basin from exercising their riparian rights, or the debate about the environmental, social and economic impact of hydro-colossuses we call super-dams, or clandestine water grabs disguised as legitimate land acquisition.
Understandably, therefore, as Peppard argues convincingly, “the foundational challenge for the twenty-first century” is linked to the “fundamental event” and the “anthropological constant” called “water.” The question – as she frames it – is: “How might global, pluralistic humanity sustain the integrity of our rapidly diminishing global freshwater resources?”
To the axis of scarcity and contestation we should add a third element, namely, pollution. Not only is water scarce and its ownership and control contested, whatever is available is threatened by pollution and contamination. Pope Francis outlines the deadly scale of this problem in poignant terms: “Every day, unsafe water results in many deaths and the spread of water-related diseases, including those caused by micro-organisms 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. It is not only a question of industrial waste. Detergents and chemical products, commonly used in many places of the world, continue to pour into our rivers, lakes and seas” (LS 29).
If you took a demographic sample of people who regularly congregated for the nocturnal ritual of water procurement in Benin, another striking but familiar picture would emerge, namely, an elevated and unmistakable gender quotient. Without a doubt, the vast majority were women and girls. The infelicitous association of water and gender distinction has a long history.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the burden of water procurement falls disproportionately on women and girls and exposes them to grave dangers in form of gender-based sexual violence, especially in rural settings. Their domestic and labor-intensive tasks of cooking, cultivating and cleaning mean that water is a highly sought-after commodity. For those women and girls, accessibility to water becomes a matter of life and death or at least the source of grave harm to their bodies. Victims of such water-linked hazards abound in refugee camps and remote villages.
The quest for and accessibility to water, and the inescapable necessity of finding it, places women in harm’s way, while the scarcity or poor quality of water exposes children to multiple water-borne diseases. Undeniably, “women and children disproportionately bear the burdens of this heavy liquid. Young girls often forgo education in order to help meet the basic water requirement of domestic life.” The African woman’s cry for liberation from the vicissitudes and perils of water procurement echoes the Samaritan woman’s fervent appeal to Jesus at Jacob’s well in the Gospel of John: “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never … have to keep coming here to draw water!” (John 4:15).
The confluence of gender and water represents a significant dimension of the global water crisis. There are other demographic constituencies, such as refugees and internally displaced people, who bear the brunt of this crisis. In camps that dot the landscape of eastern Africa – in Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya – some refugees and internally displaced persons must survive on as little as two (or less) liters of water per person per day. Inarguably, similar to what Pope Francis has stated, “People living in poverty and other forms of structurally embedded vulnerability are most affected by fresh water’s absence.”
It may be true that water has no enemy, but this vital substance is anything but ethically neutral. Water creates many enemies! Judging by the examples I mentioned earlier, water and the quest for this ethically charged substance has monumental consequences. The rural woman or girl who oftentimes must take her life in her hands when in search of water views it with trepidation and longing. For those families who lost relatives and friends in an urban parish in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, when empty plastic bottles and plastic bags created an impenetrable wall, diverting cascading waters on to their shabby dwellings and causing massive flooding, the ravages of water trigger mortal fear and justifiable anger.
For hundreds of thousands of women, men and children who must endure hunger and starvation in the Horn of Africa due to devastating drought conditions, water traces the dividing line between life and death. Still, millions of African subsistence farmers and small-scale fishermen and fisherwomen watch with horror and alarm the constant discharge of waste and industrial effluents into rivers, streams and lakes; they stand powerless in the face of the gradual and sure pollution and disappearance of their source of livelihood, or as multinationals stake claims to ownership, privatization and control of water at a cost that is unaffordable to the poor.
Already, in various parts of Africa, climate change has adversely altered rainfall patterns on which subsistence farmers depend. The consequences, such as hunger, further stunt the developmental aspiration of low-income African countries. We can multiply instances of water crisis in Africa and elsewhere on the globe, but the point I wish to make is that this situation points to a complex problem and confronts us with the urgent task of generating practical and sustainable initiatives founded on solid ethical principles.
The ethical framework
What Catholic social thought designates as “the principle of the common good” offers us an ethical framework for a substantive consideration of the panoply of issues around water security, especially through the perspective of rights. The commodification of water as a privatized tradable resource, the inaccessibility of water to the most vulnerable populations and the indiscriminate pollution of water bodies all constitute a grave assault on this most vital and essential common good and the right of human and natural ecologies that depend on it for survival. As St. John Paul II was concerned to point out, “As a gift from God, water is a vital element essential to survival; thus everyone has a right to it.”
Francis concurs: “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” (LS 30).
While I subscribe to this view that access to fresh water is a universal and inalienable human right, I fear the language or the claim of rights is easily counteracted or denatured by the contestations and machinations of powerful economic and political institutions that dispose of unlimited resources to procure, privatize, hoard and monopolize access to fresh water. I propose to foreground the critical link between the right to water and the concept of the common good in this hydrological debate.
Catholic social tradition defines the common good as “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment. [The common good] takes on an increasingly universal complexion and consequently involves rights and duties with respect to the whole human race.” St. John XXIII wrote extensively about this cardinal principle of Catholic social thought in his encyclicals Mater et Magistra (1961) and Pacem in Terris (1963). The ultimate destination of the common good is the fulfillment of human existence in solidarity with the whole of creation. This principle, as John Paul II noted, “is not simply the sum total of particular interests; rather, it involves an assessment and integration of those interests on the basis of a balanced hierarchy of values; ultimately, it demands a correct understanding of the dignity and the rights of the person.” In other words, the human person is the ultimate and ethical measure of the common good. Thus stated, the ethical principle of the common good is irreducible to mere abstractions.
I consider the heavy liquid, water, as a tangible, concrete and vivid example of the common good. By nature, water is a focal point of global concern. Far from simply being a transboundary substance, water, in whatever form it exists – groundwater, surface water, or desalinated water – is a planetary patrimony, solemnly bequeathed to the diverse inhabitants and constituents of planet earth that ought not to be monopolized by and rendered captive to the machinations of special interest groups and insatiable investors.
Like the ethical imperatives of the water goddess that I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, a key dimension of the concept of common good is the moral duty it imposes on all socioeconomic and political institutions, especially governments, to preserve and make it available in response to the basic needs of all rather than reserve it for the exploitation of the privileged few. To put it quite straightforwardly, quoting John XXIII, “The attainment of the common good is the sole reason for the existence of civil authorities.” If indeed water is a universal common good, we can conceivably infer that the raison d’être of civil and political establishments is measured by the commitment or the lack thereof to ensure water security.
Barring instances of severe drought conditions or massive flooding, water does not necessarily occupy a preeminent position in the “hierarchy of values” – be they socioeconomic or political. Consider one ironic example: in our technologically super-developed world, we consider it quite normal to spend US$2.5 billion to send a sophisticated robotic instrument to planet Mars in search of traces of water out of “curiosity.” Yet “there are 768 million people living (on planet earth) without safe water and 2.5 billion with nowhere (on our planet) to go to the toilet.” Besides, “Around the world, one in eight people (that is, 840 million people) go to bed hungry every night, even though there is enough food for everyone.” Peppard draws the incisive conclusion that “clean water flows towards power.” I believe clean water flows through our wallets!
Water as common good evokes the planetary nature of this precious substance. More importantly, as an irreplaceable substance, the survival of our ecosystems is predicated on a fundamental consciousness of a global, social, political and economic interdependence where water appears as the common denominator. To quote the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, “Because we are interdependent, the common good is more like a multiplication sum, where if any one number is zero then the total is always zero. If anyone is left out and deprived of what is essential, then the common good has been betrayed.” Water serves as the clearest illustration of this ethical principle of the common good.
To extend this argument a little further, viewed from the perspective of the communitarian ethics of sub-Saharan Africa, fresh water exemplifies the philosophy of Ubuntu that reiterates the mutual interdependence necessary for the collective survival of humanity.
A social premium
Understanding water as common good warrants us to resist the rapacious and widespread attempt to commodify it, not for sustainable development, but for the interest of the gilded few. A narrow economic valuation of a common good creates an institutionalized and unjust bias that excludes the poor and vulnerable while rendering this essential element accessible only to the rich and powerful. In other words, the competition that pits large-scale agriculture, extractive and energy industries against small-scale cultivators ultimately disempowers the latter and unjustly compromises their ability to meet the minimum conditions for a dignified existence. That is why Peppard is right in believing that the antithesis of water as common good is a “reductive equivalence” between its value and its price. The logic of such reductionism violates the universal and inalienable right to water, because this right is grounded on “human dignity and not on any kind of merely quantitative assessment that considers water as a merely economic good.”
Essentially, the focal point of my argument relies on the premise that a social premium falls on the availability, accessibility and affordability of fresh water. From the radical but refreshing perspective of Vatican II, this social premium takes precedence over privatized economic arrangements, precisely because it derives its legitimacy from the moral principle of the universal destination or purpose of goods.
The combination of social premium and universal destination of goods yields an ethical imperative or claim that “Satisfying the needs of all, especially of those who live in poverty, must guide the use of water and the services connected with it.” Francis reinforces this view, stating, “Our world has a grave social debt toward the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity” (LS 30).
The correlation of water and the ethical principle of the common good validates the already mentioned arguments from Pope Francis and Peppard that “Fresh water is both sui generis and a sine qua non for human beings and ecosystems.” It is a fundamental resource not only for personal flourishing but for the flourishing of social and planetary ecologies.
It is possible to argue, therefore, that, ultimately, water as common good – in the wider context of Catholic social thought – imposes a moral responsibility on individuals, on the one hand, and on institutions and systems of public and political governance, on the other. Whereas the former entails ethical use of water resources domestically and socially (not excluding golf courses and lush lawns!), the latter implies regulatory policies that protect water bodies and sources from reckless commodification, pollution and misappropriation by industrial agriculture, energy prospectors and corporate moguls.
In conclusion, traditional wisdom celebrates water as a fundamental and vital planetary good. “Without water, life is threatened.” The inveterate pursuit of its commodification for narrow economic gains, coupled with dwindling and polluted sources, places the water question on the plane of global concern. To guarantee its accessibility and sustainability, justice and conversion seem essential preconditions.
However, such conversion ought not to be understood in exclusively personal or individual terms. Evidently, shorter showers, reduced shaving sessions and increased frugality in daily personal ablution practices would make an appreciable difference, as would more effective methods of water harvesting. However, if we insist solely on such practices as panacea for a global water crisis we neglect the real issues. Personal or individual responsibility does not obviate the urgency of a systemic conversion to place the water crisis on the agenda of the international community and boost strategies, mechanisms and policies to promote sustainable forms of agriculture and economic development and to reverse climate change and ecological degradation linked with the global water crisis. The insatiable thirst for water by our hyper-industrialized world must not lead to an attempt to slake it at the expense of economically disadvantaged and vulnerable people.
Sadly, though, the present cast of Africa’s leaders and policymakers lacks the moral acumen necessary, first, to comprehend the urgency of the water crisis, and, second, to initiate concerted, principled measures toward mitigating the crisis. For example, in September 2013, the unprecedented discovery of five massive aquifers in the arid northern part of Kenya stirred wild optimism about the potential of this strategic find to radically transform the livelihoods, ecosystems, sanitation and food production capability for present and coming generations of Kenyans in northern Kenya and in the entire country. The disappointments of history make us cautious and doubtful about the government’s capability to capitalize on this enormous hydrological potential to better the lives of its people.
In light of clear and present dangers posed by the global freshwater crisis, I see no greater good than that of ensuring the availability of and access to sufficient quantity and quality of water to meet the health, livelihoods, ecosystem and production needs of global populations, especially the poor and the marginalized. Let us imagine a scenario where every woman, man and child on planet earth has unhindered access to safe and sufficient fresh water. It would be a world “free from poverty and disease”; a world as close as possible to Ezekiel’s visual parable of the Kingdom of God: “I saw water flowing….the water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar… This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down…and when it enters the sea, the sea of stagnant waters, the water will become fresh. Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there. It will become fresh; and everything will live where the river goes. People will stand fishing beside the sea… It will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of a great many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea. But its swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they are to be left for salt. On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing” (Ezekiel 47:1-12).
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 3, no. 6, article 3, 2019: 10.32009/22072446.1906.3
 C. Z. Peppard, Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis, New York, Orbis, 2014, 184.
 Ibid., 187.
 Ibid., 184.
 Ibid., 484.
 Cf. Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, No. 486.
 Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes (1965), No. 26.
 John Paul II, Centesimus Annus (1991), No. 47.
 John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, No. 54.
 Cf. Idem., Mater et Magistra, Nos. 20, 151.
 WaterAid, Annual Report, in www.wateraid.org/uk/who-we-are/annual-reports#/annual-reports.
 Oxfam, The Food Index, in www.oxfam.org.uk/what-we-do/good-enough-to-eat.
 C. Z. Peppard, Just Water…, op. cit., 184.
 Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, Choosing the Common Good, 2010, 8.
 C. Z. Peppard, Just Water…, op. cit., 187.
 Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, No. 485.
 Cf. Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes (1965), No. 26.
 Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, No. 484.
 C. Z. Peppard, Just Water…, op. cit., 184.
 Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, No. 484.
 WaterAid, Annual Report, op. cit.