Isaiah 55:1 - “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.”
Having lived in Manila for over a decade now, I have not seen a water crisis loom large as it had in March of this year when the Philippines’ capital region started to experience a what could be the worst water fiasco in recent history.
Until now, I could never imagine an archipelagic country like the Philippines, which is rich in rain forests and freshwater resources, experience such an unthinkable ordeal.
My place was considered the epicentre of the said ‘water crisis' or among those cities that were badly hit — having poor water supply for days to weeks and sometimes the water supply was completely cut off. While the local government was quick to respond by sending over fire-trucks carrying with them big tanks of water to supply the affected communities, many residents still suffered from the shortage of water causing them panic and anxiety for no one was prepared for it.
People from all walks of life lined up for water with their basins and pails, which had become the latest trend and subject of social media and news articles.
Initially, the problem was associated with the effects of El Niño. While water concessionaires also claimed that it was a supply and demand issue, the real problem all points out to the delay in the government projects that will ensure the continuity and sufficiency of water supply. Particularly, the ageing pipelines and dams that provide Manila's water have not kept pace with the growth of the mega-city, which has roughly doubled its population since 1985.
Truth be told, it is the government’s responsibility to source all waters and to regulate its utilization, conservation, exploitation and development. It has the mandate, through its designated agency, to provide sufficient and continuous access to water.
The recent water crisis, however, shows that these mandates have not been achieved.
In 1976, Presidential Decree 1067 (also known as the Water Code of the Philippines) was enacted, which provides for appropriation and utilization of water. This also paved the way to administrative concession that allowed private companies to secure a permit or authority to appropriate water for certain purposes, thus made Manila as one of the cities in the world where water is privatized.
In Metro Manila, water service is carried out by two big private concessionaires and some small-scale independent providers. The concession contracts obliged the private companies to achieve an uninterrupted water supply and comply with effluent standards.
The privatisation of water has completely turned a supposedly public good into private good and has put this precious basic human need under the mercy of big companies who are driven by capitalistic tendencies for business and profit. It has also prompted the patronization of commercialized bottled water and people's dependence to small water-distilling businesses for safe drinking water for their homes, instead of relying on government's supposed provision of efficient water resource facilities that would supply these needs.
These realities run counter to the World Council of Churches’(WCC) advocacy of casting out the bottled water being part of the Blue Communities Project. The three basic criteria of becoming a blue community are: recognizing water as a human right; saying “no" to the sale of bottled water in places where tap water is safe to drink; and promoting publicly-financed, owned and operated drinking water and wastewater treatment services, implying that WCC says NO to privatisation.
The privatisation of water has denied people of free access to and just distribution of water, as one of the recognized human rights, especially to the poorest sectors of society who cannot afford to pay for clean and safe water for their daily use.
In the midst of a looming water crisis, people are searching for water. Many are thirsty. But there is no water to quench their thirst. And even if there is, many cannot afford it due to such privatisation.
In Isaiah 55:1, God comes forward with a great invitation to those who are thirsty to drink water at no cost. This invitation to drink water is open to those who have no money. It is not just for those who can afford to pay their way. It is for everyone and it is for free!
This text finds relevance in the midst of prevailing privatisation of water in many cities in the world. It gives comfort to those who seek water but cannot afford the same given their desperate and poor economic conditions. It affirms their right to share and have free access in the same source of water that is taken away by such privatisation processes. Studies have shown that privatisation of a vital source such as water by a private company will always try to make a profit, to cut corners, stop catering to the poor whose returns or utility bill payments are rather low for obvious reasons and ultimately exclude the poor. Privatisation will always cater to the needs of the rich.
Furthermore, Jesus says, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.” (John 7:37).
Who is invited to drink? Everyone. Christ's redemption is not only for the Jews. It is also for the Gentiles. Not only for Christians but for all the nations, the needy, the outcasts, the marginalized and those who labour under the scorching heat.
The human right to water does not necessarily mean that water should be free. However, it has to be reviewed within the normative content of human rights, i.e. accessibility, affordability, quality, accountability and non-discrimination. If some people simply cannot afford to pay anything for their access to water, then water should be free for them.
This normative content in the human right is clearly expressed in Isaiah 55:1.
In Christ, there is water for all. But a call to drink will only have appeal to those who are thirsty. The people who are most likely to hear God's invitation are those who are denied the very right to drink water — not the self-satisfied who have the plenteous supply to meet their own selfish desires. They will never hear God's voice. But if they have no money to afford them to buy water, like the poorest of the poor, it is only then that such an invitation would remind them of their thirst and longing to drink.
Questions for reflection:
- Do you think the privatisation of water is the answer to the water crisis?
- Who are those denied the right to water due to privatisation? Share some realities from your communities.
- What does God’s invitation to come to the waters mean to you in the context of these realities?