A Christian Voice In Water Politics

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We cannot live without fresh water, and we cannot thrive without its abundance. We might debate whether other goods are “basic” to human flourishing, but there’s no argument about water.

So access to clean water is vital – and an urgent and growing problem. The United Nations estimates that over 10 percent of the world’s population lacks a regular supply of usable water, and over a third – 2.5 billion people – do not have basic sanitation. And while the problem of access tends to be most severe in regions that are poor and arid, it is not limited to those places. Just ask residents in Flint, Michigan, who have contended this past year with municipal water tainted with lead and other pollutants. Or check in with the farmers and families struggling with the effects of long-term drought throughout the North American west.

Where access fails, conflict will follow. A voluminous literature has chronicled the “water wars” in south Asia, the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and nearly every other region across the globe. The language of “war” here is not always metaphorical: Actual violence has been a fixture of disputes over the distribution of water. What’s more, as human populations grow and move, those conflicts are likely to intensify, especially where surface water and aquifers stretch across political borders. It’s easy to imagine a future in which water – not oil or minerals, not religion or ethnicity - is the key trigger for our most dangerous regional and transnational clashes.

Do Christians Have Anything to Say about Water?

We could choose to respond to these challenges with the cold perspective of survival-of-the-fittest – or perhaps survival-of-the-luckiest. But of course, Christians do not see the universe in those terms. For Christians, access to water ought not be about the arbitrariness of birth and geography or the vagaries of power. It is a matter of justice, and our response is grounded in God’s call to seek shalom, in this case by addressing the access problems and inevitable conflicts that arise when a good is both basic and unevenly distributed.

But let’s say we agree that Christians ought to think about access to clean water in terms of justice. What does that suggest about the role of government in addressing access problems? What is an appropriate Christian response to the distribution of water as a matter of public justice?

And here we encounter a puzzling silence, especially among Christians of a Protestant persuasion. Christians have given considerable attention to policy responses to a host of ostensibly public goods, but evangelical and mainline Christians in North America have given relatively little careful thought to water as a good. This has serious implications for public policy and planning.

Consider the typical thought leaders. Christian think tanks – the Center for Public Justice included – rarely discuss water policy or politics (but see here and here). Some Christian scholars reference water as part of more general Christian perspectives on sustainability and the environment, but these allusions are usually in passing and without special attention to distinctive issues of water policy. Pope Francis, for example, devotes a brief passage to water in his creation-care encyclical Laudato si’, even asserting that clean drinking water is a universal right. But he does not develop an argument for a political or legal response nor does he weigh competing values. (At least one scholar has drawn from the Catholic tradition to develop a more robust theological argument for clean water as a basic right, though she does not draw out the implications for policy or politics.) And this neglect of the politics of water is not a contemporary blind spot. When historians trace the evolution of water law and politics, they rightly give attention to Islamic and Jewish traditions, which grew out of conflicts in the arid regions of today’s Middle East. But they find no equally distinctive Christian thinking about global water law.

To assert that water is “basic” is just the beginning of a debate that centers on a host of normative questions

 It is a missed opportunity, because Christians do have something to say. To assert that water is “basic” is just the beginning of a debate that centers on a host of normative questions – questions about how we ought to understand the value and allocation of water. Should we craft water policy that privileges human consumption and sanitation? Irrigation for agriculture? Industrial use? Recreation and aesthetic enjoyment? If we can agree on these questions of value, how then should policy address inequities in the spatial distribution of water (its scarcity in some places and abundance in others)? How should it address the temporal distribution of water (how its use now has implications for use by later generations)? Or should policy settle these questions at all? Couldn’t the market do a better job?

It’s not difficult to see where Christian voices could fit in the debates over these questions. Christian thinkers have a long history of articulating visions of public justice and the authority of the state vis-à-vis the market and civil society. The Catholic, Reformed, and Anabaptist traditions have particularly rich legacies of inquiry on questions of how human goods ought to be distributed through economic, social, and political institutions. These traditions are a springboard for exploring the normative dimensions of hydropolitics and policy, even though few of these Christian thinkers have given attention to these specific issues. If Christians have distinctive understandings of how basic goods ought to be justly distributed, and if water is such a good, then we might expect to find intellectual resources within Christianity for considering the just distribution of water.

But it is not simply these broad visions that can inform thinking about water and justice. Christian scholars and practitioners have also provided powerful models and ideas for addressing specific areas of public policy, which often have unique challenges and imperatives. Perhaps the strongest work has been in those areas where the church or other faith-based organizations are implicated directly: education policy, policies related to social service provision, health policy, and the like. But Christians have also explored public goods that do not appear to have unique implications for Christian organizations, including care for the environment itself. Indeed, the attention Christians have given to so many areas of policy makes the relative dearth of reflection on the law and politics of water even more puzzling.

Toward Christian Action for Political Development

To be clear: To argue that Christians have neglected the politics of clean water is not to suggest that Christians have ignored access to clean water. Countless individuals and faith-based development organizations have leveraged technical expertise in engineering, agriculture, urban infrastructure, restoration ecology, and other disciplines to develop and secure water systems for human use, particularly in impoverished regions. Many denominations and churches foster the development of clean water systems as part of their global outreach ministries. Christian colleges and universities are also taking on problems with water. Calvin College’s new Clean Water Institute is one example of an entire range of efforts to meet the human need for safe drinking water in areas of severe deprivation.

The problem, as I see it, is that much of this good work happens with an understanding of development that is nonpolitical. The reasons are understandable. On the one hand, Christians want to do good in the world, we have technical expertise and willing volunteers, and the problems of water access are terribly urgent. On the other hand, political processes can be compromising or downright corrupt, they are difficult to understand and penetrate, and they are often painfully slow and uncertain. Still, a lack of serious attention to water policy and politics raises the common concern that our interventions will hurt more than they help. Some key studies of development have coupled a Christian sensibility with solid models and methods, often drawing from secular analysis of development efforts. Many tell a cautionary tale about the prospects for development work in areas where the groundwork of policy and planning has been neglected.

It may help us here to draw an analogy to another area where Christians have understood social and economic development as inseparable from legal and political reform. In his work with the International Justice Mission, founder Gary Haugen’s goal is human development for the poor-- the ability for human beings to flourish through productive work, safe homes, and healthy neighborhoods. But he insists that human development is not sustainable without legal and political structures to undergird it. So IJM has dedicated itself to building a legal infrastructure to combat human trafficking, police brutality, rape, slavery, and other forms of abuse and everyday violence.

Haugen’s argument is neither novel nor earth-shattering (though his organization’s work certainly has been). But it comes with the recognition that combating deprivation takes legal and political effort that is necessarily long-term. The Christian church, which worships a God who is sovereign over all creation, has a stake in the same long-haul political work for water justice.

The discussion about water is already happening without a Christian voice. Just as Haugen points to public corruption and impunity as factors that contribute to everyday violence, numerous secular analyses have pointed to failed or co-opted governance at all levels – international, national, subnational – as key variables that explain inequities in access to clean water. How might Christians bring transformation if we gave our attention to the politics of water?

- Kevin R. den Dulk is the Paul B. Henry Chair in Political Science at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.