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By Bishop Dr Munib Younan*

Text: "Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the water" (Isaiah 55:1)

The grace Jesus of our Lord Christ, the love of God the Father,  and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all evermore. Amen.

Salaam and grace to you in the name of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, from Jerusalem, that needs your prayers and support for justice. I am thankful that the WCC has given me this opportunity to write a reflection designated for “Seven Weeks for Water.”

As an Arab Palestinian Christian Evangelical Lutheran, I grew up in Jerusalem, a city of diversity and dialogue. I well remember that in the 1950s and 60s, I used to hear a voice from a peddler dressed in Turkish style carrying a big bottle of water or local drinks on his chest in the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem and shouting: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to drink.” This exactly reminds me of the call of Isaiah: "Ho, everyone who thirsts come to the waters.”  (Isaiah 55:1). Isaiah is not only inviting his followers to drink from the earthly waters but also from the spiritual water.

In fact, when we read the story of creation, from the beginning, "a wind from God swept over all face of waters” (Genesis 1:2). From the beginning of creation, water has been God's plan of creation. Water is a key element found in many biblical stories, from Noah's ark and the baptism of Jesus Christ to Moses parting the Red Sea and the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well in Nablus. Water is a gift God gave us through His creation, and it is crucial for the survival of every living being. Yet almost a billion people on the planet are without access to clean, safe water. Just as much as every human being on this earth needs water to live, we also need God, which is why the Psalmist says: "As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, oh God.”  (Psalm 42: 1). As water satisfies the body, the Spirit of God has come through our Saviour Jesus Christ who tells us in this period of Lent: "But those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4:14). And in this Lent, many people who are looking for a safe, clean cup of water will join the Samaritan women by asking Jesus, "Sir,  give (us) the water so that (we) may never be thirsty or have to be coming here (to the well) to draw water.” (John 4:15).

A long way to go

Although technological advancements in the desalination process have done miracles in the world and especially in Palestine and Israel, where we have tap water processed from the Mediterranean, we still have a long way to go, which makes how we steward water all the more urgent. One out of every eight people on this planet does not have access to clean drinking water. We are all connected through this larger water narrative, water that is all around us, water that reminds us that God, the Creator, is present in all times and places. To be careless with water is poor Christian stewardship because everything in life has water. To use water for political ends is to deny God's gift to every race and nation on this planet. To use water for colonial purposes is a sin because we deny that God is the source of that water to every human being.

As I write this Lent reflection, I hear the fighting jets flying over my home in Jerusalem for shelling Gaza. It breaks my heart for the loss of life for any nation, especially in Gaza. Even in the midst of this war, we are to be reminded of the water situation in Gaza, which is catastrophic in times of war. Even before the war, Gaza had virtually no potable water. The population relied on a polluted and rapidly depleting aquifer, as well as a limited number of desalination plants that fell short of meeting local needs. This has led to an alarming situation. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Territories, in their flash update #99 on 22 January: "The availability of water in Gaza is shrinking. According to water, sanitation, and hygiene humanitarian partners, water availability through municipal wells is presently at 21,200 cubic metres per day, which is a tenth of their production capacity of 255,000 cubic metres a day prior to the escalation of hostilities. Water from these wells is known to be substandard—gives brackish (salty), whereas water from the Israeli-operated lines yielded the optimal safe drinking water before the hostilities. At present, only one of the three Israeli lines—the Bani Sa’id point—is functional, yielding 22,000 cubic metres of water a day, which is less than half of what would have been available if all lines worked."

Vulnerable people 

Before the war on Gaza, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza had access to just 80 litres of water per day, falling below the international standard of 100 litres set by the World Health Organization (WHO). Since the start of the war, the average consumption of water for all purposes in Gaza has fallen to between two to three litres a day per person and most of this water isn't clean and safe to drink. The people of Gaza are resorting to consuming brackish water contaminated with seawater while remaining water sources are tainted with rising levels of sewage due to the collapse of the wastewater network, caused by fuel shortages and Israeli air strikes. Some of the most common symptoms of illness from contaminated water include abdominal pain, fever, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea. Children and pregnant women are most vulnerable to this kind of illness. WHO is already reporting the rise of communicable diseases due to water scarcity and overcrowding of a health sector on the brink of collapse. It was reported on 22 January that the 158,000 cases of diarrhoea and the inability to perform water chlorination to kill bacteria are exacerbating the already concerning situation. At present, WASH  and the humanitarian agencies have developed an acute water diarrhoea preparedness and response plan. (Humanitarian Access, Snapshot).

On 28 July 2010, through resolution 64/292, the UN General Assembly explicitly recognised the human rights to water and sanitation and acknowledged that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realisation of human rights. The Sustainable Development  Goal (SDG) 6 seeks to ensure safe drinking water and sanitation for all, focusing on sustainable management of water resources, wastewater, and ecosystems and acknowledging the importance of an enabling environment.

Challenging questions

The worrying data from Gaza points this Lent to ask the valid question: "If water is the gift of God to the creatures, and if water is agreed upon internationally and legally as a basic human right by all member States of the UN, then why is water used as a political tool?" Why is water politicized in Gaza? Isn’t our duty as Christians to call to depoliticize water in this Lent?

Thanks to all the UN agencies and all humanitarian agencies around the world that are helping to alleviate the human suffering in Gaza. Then the question arises in this tense political situation: why do the countries that voted for the right to water and sanitation as a basic human right at the UN not raise their voices in the context of the water situation in Gaza in the wake of this war? In this Lent, we are asking the churches and their members to pray unceasingly for the immediate cessation of war and for depoliticizing the basic humanitarian aid, including water, and allowing the needed humanitarian aid including water, food, fuel, and medicine to enter to the people of Gaza. 

Pray to our Living God, that there will be an endgame to this long Palestinian-Israeli conflict so that God will open the minds of the powerful and decision-makers of this world to implement the international legitimacy so that peace based on justice will become a reality.

Light a candle and pray for the victims, the bereaved, the injured, the traumatised, the prisoners of war, the displaced, those whose homes have been destroyed, and especially for the children and the pregnant women. Pray for the people in Gaza, Palestinian Muslims, and Palestinian  Christians, who are living in fear and frustration and deprived of their basic needs.

Pray for the equal distribution of water in Gaza so that they may live and live abundantly.

"What does God require of you? But to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with God.” Micah 6:8.

May God bless your meditation and prayers in this period of Lent.


*Bishop Dr Munib Younan, bishop emeritus of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, is former president of the Lutheran World Federation and honorary president of Religions for Peace International.