Text: Isaiah 55:1
“Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!....
without money and without cost.
"Water is a symbol of life. The Bible affirms water as the cradle of life, an expression of God's grace in perpetuity for the whole of creation (Gen 2:5ff). It is a basic condition for all life on Earth (Gen 1:2ff.) and is to be preserved and shared for the benefit of all creatures and the wider creation. Water is the source of health and well-being and requires responsible action from us human beings, as partners and priests of Creation (Rom 8:19 ff., Rev 22). As churches, we are called to participate in the mission of God to bring about a new creation where life in abundance is assured to all (John 10:10; Amos 5:24). It is therefore right to speak out and to act when the life-giving water is pervasively and systematically under threat.”
– excerpt from Statement on “Water for Life”, 9th Assembly of World Council of Churches, Porto Alegre, 2006. 
From early 2000, water issues have been at the forefront of the government, United Nations and Civil Society Organisations. What was presumed by many—that access to safe drinking water is already a human right—was, in reality, not the case. Even though discussions around the right to water date back to the 1972 UN Conference on Environment, this was not a reality until recently. The UN dedicated 2005-2015 as the decade for International Decade for Action “Water for Life.” The multi-stakeholders continued their discourses, including the Faith-Based Organisations. This gave the ultimate push to recognise water as a human right. Thus, on 28 July 2010, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 64/292, which explicitly recognised water and sanitation as a human right and acknowledged that water and sanitation are essential to the realisation of all human rights. The General Assembly also called upon States to provide financial and technical resources in order to scale up efforts to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all.
But long before in the year 2005, several faith-based organisations, especially specialised ministries, such as the Bread for the World along with Norwegian Church Aid, Church of Sweden, among others, worked towards the creation of an ecumenical platform where issues of the human right to water and sanitation are addressed from a human rights perspective. Several international consultations were held in Switzerland, Kenya and other places. They approached the World Council of Churches to create such a platform to address the water issues with the support of these specialised ministries.
The WCC JPC (Justice Peace and Creation) in 2006 produced a document titled “Water of Life”, where they articulated the need to form a platform called the Ecumenical Water Network (EWN) to address issues related to the human right to water. In 2006, at the WCC 9th Assembly in Porto Alegre, at the request of the assembly, participants issued a statement called “Water for Life”, an excerpt of which is quoted above. Thus was born the EWN as a WCCecumenical initiative.
The water crisis is only getting worse amid climate change, despite efforts by governments, the UN and CSOs. The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) #6 "water and sanitation for all" by 2030, may not be a reality unless we quadruple our collective efforts, as per the UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres. It is predicted that by 2025, two-thirds of the world will be experiencing some level of water stress. With over 2 billion people lacking safely managed drinking water and over 4 billion people lacking safely managed sanitation, our efforts to achieve SDG 6 and the human right to water for all are far from over.
The onslaught of privatisation of water is only adding to the global water crisis. For most developed countries, water services were by and large under public control from the beginning, through water-related ministries and authorities of the government. However, in the 1990s, privatisation of water rapidly expanded as the World Bank’s IFP (International Finance Corporation) lent around 75 billion dollars to countries for water and sanitation projects, including water privatisations. The two French water service giants, namely: Suez and Veolia, are the world's largest private water firms (now merged as one) and are responsible for the majority of water privatisation around the world.
When water privatisation is offered as a solution to municipal budget problems and aging water distribution systems, it creates a greater problem leaving communities with higher rates, worse service, job losses, and more. The primary motive of the corporations is to make a profit. This will influence their pricing/tariff fixing, catering, quality, cutting corners, etc. While the government is accountable to its public, private corporations are not.
Nevertheless, today more and more cities are making their water public again. A report by the Transnational Institute (TNI), Public Services International Research Unit and the Multinational Observatory suggests that “180 cities and communities in 35 countries, including Buenos Aires, Johannesburg, Paris, Accra, Berlin, La Paz, Maputo and Kuala Lumpur, have all “re-municipalised” their water systems in the past decade.”
Different stakeholders value water differently. For the faith communities, water has a strong spiritual value. For every living creation, water is life. For corporations and business houses, water is "blue gold.” The Bible speaks about water for all and water for free. "Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! ... without money and without cost.”
Would you ever buy a sandwich for USD 10,000? No one would; because it is about 2,000 times more expensive. However, many of us have paid the equivalent of that “10,000 dollar-a-sandwich” for a bottle of water! Yes, we have paid up to USD 10.- for a 1-litre bottle of water at the restaurant/ airport, etc. This price is around 2,000 times more than the price of tap water. However, the problem with "bottled water" is not only the price. The problem is much more serious. Bottled water mostly comes in plastic bottles. We are buying more than 1 million plastic bottles every minute.. When we finish drinking the water within minutes, we dump the bottle in a garbage bin or in a so-called "recycle bin.” However, statistics have shown us that more than 91% of these plastic bottles end up in landfills and in the oceans, where they remain for up to 1,000 years before fully biodegraded. If this business-as-usual, continues, it is estimated that by 2050, there could be more plastics in the oceans than fish (by weight).
That is why the World Council of Churches has become a blue community. What is a blue community, after all? A blue community has to respect three criteria: 1) Recognise water as a human right 2) say "no" to the sale, and use of bottled water in places where tap water is safe to drink and 3) promote publicly financed, owned and operated drinking water (in other words say no to privatisation of water).
Let us become a blue community and re-affirm that water is a gift of God, a common good and a human right.
- Do you think water should be free for all? If so, how the government will get revenue for service delivery?
- Do you think the privatisation of water will solve the global water crisis?
- Explore with your churches/institution/university how to become a “Blue Community”?
- Say “No” to bottled water, if tap water is safe to drink or look for sustainable alternatives.
Refer to the footnotes and hyperlinks.
* Mr Dinesh Suna has been the coordinator of WCC's Ecumenical Water Network since 2013 and is based in Geneva. He is a Lutheran from India. He is also a co-lead of PaRD workstream on Water, Environment and Climate Action (WeCARE).