‘Water is the life in all living things’. This truism is borne out in the experience of Southern Africa where two large water basins, namely, the Zambezi and Limpopo river basins are subjected to pollution because of industrial activities, human manipulation of water ways and climate change. Water is therefore a relevant site for the analysis and exploration of theologies of life and justice. Two lenses, namely, an eco-feminist perspective and the African notion of vitalism are employed to articulate the theme ‘engendering water from an eco-feminist perspective in the context Southern Africa’.

The Context

The changes in the ecosystems caused by mining, other economic activities and climate change have altered natural habitats, causing water shortages and pollution in many parts of Southern Africa. Economic activities that do not take ecosystems into account pause an environmental threat to these river basins and threaten water resources and the complex communities of organisms that support life in the basins.

The human impact on water resources in the region is evident in agricultural practices, increasing water consumption, the construction of dams, urbanisation, mining, industrial pollution of rivers, lakes, dams and underground water (Rosane, 2010). The most pressing water-related environmental issues as resulting from economic activities in the region include chemical runoff into watersheds, desertification and lack of adequate water which poses a health risk1 on the poorer communities.

The regional institutional frameworks that are meant to manage the vast fresh water resources are inadequate. The legal, economic and human resource constraints faced by each country make it difficult to implement state-led institutional frameworks. Reforms to cultivate stakeholder participation do not make it clear how such new stakeholder institutions would operate at local, national and regional levels.

That threat is further compounded by competing interests of the multiple countries around. The politicisation of water was aptly captured in the 2006 United Nations report, which underlines how water is essential:

“...for all socio-economic development and for maintaining healthy eco-systems (and how) the pressure on the water sources intensifies, (is) leading to tensions, conflicts among users, and excessive pressure on the environment ... increasing stress on freshwater resources brought about by ever rising demand ... is of serious concern.” (Nations, March 9 2006)

An Eco-Feminist View

The eco-feminist perspective is one among many theological entry points to ecological issues in general, and the world water crisis in particular. The eco-feminist perspective is relevant because of the undeniable underlining gap between men and women’s political, economic and social conditions, contribution and participation in the region. In many communities women are responsible for collecting water for domestic use. Women are also the majority subsistence farmer. Domestic food security and cash for daily sustenance of their families is largely a burden borne by women. Water is therefore a gender issue. Yet, despite countries in Southern Africa being signatories to international protocols that stipulate targets for women participation in the legislature, many countries do not measure up.

Addressing water crisis issues calls for the church to prophetically engage with such multifaceted issues. The “pilgrimage” towards gender justice in the church is therefore important. The prophetic voice of the church would be weakened without its compliance in that regard.

African Vitalism

In African spirituality, vital force is the principle of life that enables (vitalises) its interdependent and interrelated existence. The inherent relatedness of all of creation engenders a sense of reverence towards nature which (though not always intentionally) resulted in earth-care in many traditional African societies. Everything was imbued by the principle of life, thus nature was not just viewed from a utilitarian view. Rivers and water bodies were considered to have life and agency; apart from just watering the land to sustain life. They were guarded for the common good of humans and other forms of life. A theological retrieval of such values which are consonant with the biblical intuition that the ‘earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.’ (Psalm 24:1-2; 1 Corinthians 10:26) could augment an earth-keeping ethos and undergird the pilgrimage towards water justice.

A Biblical/Theological Exploration

Water is an important theme in the Bible. The biblical narratives that speak about water resonate with contemporary situations and are potential sources of a rich theology of water.

In the Bible water symbolises life. It is used for ritual purposes that signify spiritual cleansing. In the New Testament, water is a symbol in the ritual of baptism that weaves together the act of spiritual cleansing; God’s saving love in Christ that takes away sin and judgement. In the act of salvation, God’s reconciling love reaches out to humanity in an act of reconciliation. In Romans 8:22-23, creation is personified and depicted as groaning in expectation of the final deliverance and reconciliation of all of creation. The interrelatedness fractured by sin is mended and restored.

In the Old Testament we learn of drought-induced migrations. People were forced to move to other lands due to water scarcity. Isaac moved to Gerar in Genesis 26. Ruth and Elimelech moved to Moab. Agriculture and economic activities depended on the abundance of water. Elijah’s prayer that brought rain clearly happened in the context of drought. These stories from the Bible would resonate with the poor people who live along the banks of the Zambezi and the Limpopo in Southern Africa. Some have been forced to relocate from ancestral lands to give way to industries, building of dams and production of electricity.

In the Bible population settlements were concentrated along water bodies like the Nile, lake Galilee the river Tigris and the Euphrates. Water also sustained city life as evidenced by water infrastructure that kings constructed to cater for their populations (2 Chronicles 32:4).

‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters’ (Psalm 24:1,2). Water is presented an aspect of the earth in which God’s presence can be discerned. The Christian faith affirms all of creation as a sacred gift of God and water as the foundation of ‘the world and all who live in it’.


A correct biblical and theological stance towards water is required because it is the foundation of our home - the earth. And that home is not just a human habitat; it is a home that we share with all other creatures. For our good and the good of other creatures of the earth, we are called upon to care for its resources, especially water which is the life in all living things.

The Christian tradition has historically been transformed by sources outside of Christianity. This reading of the water crisis issues from gender and Southern African perspectives is an example of one such transformation called for in the midst of injustices related to water. Taking seriously insights from the feminist perspective and the African worldview of an interconnected, interrelated creation, calls for a return to reverence for God’s creation, including water. That view puts spirituality back into our view of water as a gift of God. Water has a doxological value!

The interrelatedness of creation derives its orientation form the triune relationship as its theological grounding. The reconciling act of God in Christ, or soteriology, is symbolised with water as a symbol of cleansing, reconciliation and the impending judgement of sin. Ongoing development of ecologically sensitive models for organising human relationships and society based on the understanding that oppression of nature is connected to other forms of oppression, such as the oppression of women and the economic poor (Hallman, 2002) therefore is not on the fringes of Christian theology.

Humankind and all of creation, will be taken up in God’s presence. Our eschatological hope should inspire actions that signal God’s reign here and now. Our response to the water crisis is a reflection of our expectation of the Spirit’s renewal of the whole earth!

Thoughts for Reflection

  1. Water is a sacred gift of God. Does the liturgical practice of the church reflect that?

  2. All things in nature are relater in God. How does this truth change how we view water?

Questions for Discussion

  1. What justice issues arise in the pilgrimage towards water justice in your own community, country and region?

  2. How is gender justice related to water justice in your community, country region?

Points of Action

  1. Design a liturgy for use in a baptismal service in which the sacredness of baptismal water and all water bodies of the earth is invoked.

  2. During the Lenten season, identify a water body subjected to capitalist greed and hegemony in your context. Pray. Plan and commit to take action on that issue.

  3. ***********

*Rev Kuzipa Nalwamba is an ordained minister of the United Church of Zambia (UCZ). She has served as congregational minister, school chaplain and was a lecturer at the United Church of Zambia Theological College (UCZTC) till 2013. She is a full-time PhD student at the University of Pretoria.