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Water and ethics

15 March 2013

From the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Photo credit: Water Spouts

Jose Ignacio Garcia, SJ

At our last meeting of the Ignatian Advocacy Network on Ecology in November 2012, we decided to focus the next two or three years on the issue of water.  Of course, each centre involved and those who can join the network in the future will maintain their own priorities, but the commitment means that we all will try to contribute, as far as we can, to promote awareness to advocacy on this issue.  We realize that our contexts are very different and, because of this, the problems we face are also very diverse: from droughts to flood crisis management, from pollution of aquifers to commoditisation of water.  Along with contributing positively to raise awareness, we want also learn to work together as an international network, something that is not so easy.

We focus on the ethical implications behind the different situations in which it is necessary to act or to decide: access, consumption, or water conservation.  The Fundación Nueva Cultura del Agua (Foundation for a New Culture of Water) proposes four categories to characterize a new “ethics of water,” and we added a fifth one.

Life-Water – Water for survival of humanity and other living things must have priority to ensure the sustainability of ecosystems and to grant access for all as a human right.  It is part of the UN Millennium Development Goals (Goal 7, Target 7C) that proposes to halve the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.  And although there are great advances, there remain important regional differences in its implementation.  South Africa (60%) and Oceania (50%) are far from achieving the goals.  Also, the difference in access to water between rural and urban areas is very large.  In fact, 80% of people without access to safe drinking water live in rural areas.

Citizenship-Water – While the “life-water” seeks to assure the access to water and this can be done through community, the “citizenship-water” takes the supply and the sanitation into the homes, in every home.  These are services that now look necessary for a majority, but in a sense, they go beyond the “living water.”  This level may identify costs of supplying that can be individualized according to households, and the contribution to the system should consider the consumer income level.  The “citizenship-water” also underlines water as a “common good” because of its critical role for survival and its multiple uses, and thus cannot be considered as a commodity.

Catastrophe-Water – refers to all natural events such as floods and droughts where water becomes the protagonist.  These phenomena, recurrent in many parts of the world, are exacerbated by the effect of climate change.  Hurricanes, typhoons, and tropical storms become more intense and frequent while droughts expand their territory of action and become more persistent.  How can plans be prepared for disaster prevention?  How can the resilience of communities be strengthened so they can adapt themselves to new situations or recover with less difficulty from the crisis?  How can the most vulnerable be more and better assisted in these emergencies?  How can the international community be better engaged to prevent these events or to assist in recovery?  This requires effective planning and prevention when the crisis occurs, as response is often limited.

Economy-Water -This category refers to productive functions and go beyond the levels of proficiency for a decent life.  In fact, this is a vast area of discussion.  Once the water supply for human consumption is assured, the rest is open to debate.  Contributing to water scarcity are the construction of immense infrastructure for transport and electricity production and the use of water in agriculture (and indirectly on livestock which is fed through crops and fibre).  Water scarcity is also increased through disproportionate and irresponsible consumption, leading to the incorporation of the market logic as a regulator for a scarce resource.  The lucrative business of bottled water would be its more clear appearance.  Economy-water struggles between the supposed market efficiency and the real need to protect the common good.

Crime-Water – When water becomes the instrument for illegal activities such as waste disposal, pollution, or illicit extraction, the legal systems must be developed to address these situations and both the administration and the judicial systems should be capable of enforcing the law.

If these five areas can be identified as a framework for a moral debate on water, two additional perspectives are necessary for this analysis:

The first relates to water management.  We are immersed in a debate between privatization and deregulation.  In the first case, the state would retain the ultimate responsibility but management is entrusted to private companies.  It is not clear whether this privatization is really more efficient.  In the case of deregulation, the state steps back, removes the “common good” description to water, and turns water into a commodity. The implications are easy to imagine.

A deeper perspective behind this whole debate is the need for our society to be increasingly involved in the supervision and management of the common good.  Water management is one of the clearest examples of the need for involvement of civil society.  Being a primary good, it makes the idea easier to grasp.

The current crisis is showing that the banking system should also be subject to much civil society control.  In the case of Europe, it is encouraging to see that when society is directly asked, she rejects that water can be privatized.  This is the case of the referendum held in Italy in June 2011 wherein a large group of civil society organizations, many of them Christian, united  to reject the proposal of privatization made by the government.

Another interesting example is the first European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), a sophisticated system of participation of people in the EU where an issue can be put on the European political agenda by collecting one million signatures from at least seven different European Union member states.  The ECI, targeting two million signatures by September, is “taking up the challenge to get implementation of the human right to water and sanitation, get a public debate going, and shift the focus of European water policy” so that human right is central, opposing the privatization of water within the European Union.

All these bring new hope to a much more democratic governance.

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One Response to Water and ethics

  1. Hedwig Lewis SJ on 25 March 2013 at 3:05 pm

    Inspiring and informative issue. Thanks

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