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By Rev. Vinod Victor*

Text: Drink water from your own cistern, running water from your own well.

(Proverbs 5:15)

The book of Proverbs is considered to be the wisdom of the elderly passed on to the younger generations as to how best to ethically and practically govern their lives. If we read the first few verses to find the context, Proverbs 5:15-20, despite the powerful imagery around water, is merely a metaphor, and the actual message is around marital fidelity, asking the young to drink from their "own cisterns and wells."

Though critics have challenged the passive feminine images used (cistern, well) in contrast to the dynamic male images (springs, fountains, and streams) and questioned the idea of control over another person's body, a close reading of the text raises several questions—including questions related to controlling and restricting others' access to safe water. I would like to dwell upon the "problematic" water imagery in this reflection.

In arid Palestine in the early days, perennial and reliable water sources were very limited, particularly after civilisation spread beyond the Jordan Valley. They had to build cisterns and, wherever possible, dig wells. Cisterns required artful building skills and hard work, and were used to store rainwater and to contain groundwater (wells). Cisterns were the source of life of communities, who met around these water sources even to address their social and economic concerns.

However, when invaders” came in, one of the tools of subjugation used was to take control of available water sources or restrict the local people from free and fair access to living water.” This resulted in conflict, violence, war, migration, and, many times, the cisterns being broken, stolen, or made inaccessible.

When we reread the passage today, we realise there are several people who want to drink from their own cisterns but are alienated from their life sources and are not able to do so. "Owning" water and water sources and "controlling" them have always been a challenge, and it is manifested in several ways around us today. The very notion attributed to water in the Bible is that it is a gift of God and it's a public good, and that it should be free (affordable) for all (Isaiah 55:1).

In the wake of the war in the Gaza region, a major human rights violation that has always happened around violent hostilities is being highlighted. The words of Pedro Arrojo-Agudo, the UN special rapporteur on human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, deserve special attention. He said: "Every hour that passes with 'aggressors' preventing the provisions of safe drinking water in the Gaza strip, in brazen breach of international law, puts the people in Gaza at the risk of dying of thirst and diseases due to lack of safe drinking water." While several people are being forced to flee from their own water sources, it is a cruel reality that even those who are left behind are being deprived of access to cisterns that have channelled water to them all these years. This painful reality is continuing to happen everywhere in the world where the "powerful" are using "water" as a tool to annihilate and subjugate the powerless." Even a literal reading of the Proverbs text in such contexts where people lose control of their bodies, are forced to migrate, live as refugees, and are often denied control of even their sexuality—drinking from one's own cisterns remains a distant dream for the several vulnerable communities, not by choice but by circumstances thrust upon them.

When we attempt a broad ecological reading of the text, several agro-based communities are at stake today because of the lack of access to safe water sources. The mismatch between the demand and supply of water is growing, and the poorer people are, the less access they have to water. While the rich can afford to own” cisterns, the tragedy is that they are now privatising not only cisterns but wells, ponds, rivers, seas, and other water sources and fencing them away from the real owners of water—the community. Strangers have taken over our waters and this theft of water sources by multinational companies that bottle water and mint profit is becoming a universal reality. They also manipulate the infrastructure for ordinary people to worsen it over time. Essential skills traditional communities had with profound knowledge about water are being stolen by the modern educational systems being imposed on them in the name of development. Deterioration of the quality of cisterns and water sources, pollution issues, the depletion of groundwater because of poor management and excessive exploitation, the encroachment into the wild by humans and wild animals being forced to interfere with human settlements in search of water… these and other issues around water will continue to be boiling around us unless we are able to take collective corrective action.

The question the passage raises for us today is:

How can we drink from our own cisterns?

When we are alienated from our own lands and cisterns by forced migration
When the invader brutally takes control of all our water sources and prevents access to them
When, in the name of caste and identity, we are denied access to our own water
When, in the name of privatisation, fences and walls are built around our water sources
When in the search for profit, the right of the generations yet to be,” for access to water is forgotten
When, in the name of development, our hills and forests are destroyed, and the fountains and sources of our water are taken away forever
When, intentionally, water is sold with a price and made inaccessible and unaffordable
When our traditional skills of water management are being stolen from new generations
When people in several parts of the world begin to ask—what does safe water look like?

How can we drink from our own cisterns?

Questions for reflection

Is privatisation of water and water sources ethically and morally right?

Is not free and fair access to safe water a basic human right, and is it justified to use denying access to water as a war strategy?

Action points

What practical steps can we take today to make sure that the generations yet to be born will have access to safe water?

If water should be made accessible to all, what changes must happen in the way water is being perceived today?

*Rev. Vinod Victor is a Presbyter of the Church of South India, now serving as chaplain of the Anglican Church of Freiburg in Germany in the Diocese of Europe of the Church of England. He is also the chair of AsiaCMS. He has served as the Synod Youth Secretary of the CSI, coordinator of the South Asia Ecumenical Partnership Programme, and as parish priest in congregations in India and Australia. He has been a close friend of the WCC Eco Schools.