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World Council of Churches Assembly urges churches to work with local communities to protect water

Protecting water resources from over-consumption and pollution is on the World Council of Churches’ agenda.

At the 9th Assembly during February in Porto Alegre, Brazil, several workshops, a worship service and a public policy guideline were on the theme, “Water for Life.”

Bishop Fredrico Jose Pagura

The goal is for churches and ecumenical partners to advocate recognition of water as a human right, to promote local control over water resources, to prevent exploitation of water for commercial purposes, to join the Ecumenical Water Network and to explore ethical and spiritual dimensions of the global water crisis.

While bottled water has brought clean, safe water to many, as a product of private, for-profit corporations, it is often too expensive for some people.

Many communities in Brazil had their community water systems taken over by profit-making corporations.  Inefficiencies and high prices led many of those communities, including Porto Alegre, to restore control to local government.

Water Altar
Worship one day featured water.

Argentinian Methodist Bishop Fredrico Jose Natalio Pagura, a former president of the WCC, said the Ecumenical Water Network includes Water Development in Germany, Church World Service and the National Council of Churches in the United States, Kairos Canada, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Lutheran World Federation.

Believing that water is basic for life, its participants seek to assure that all people have access to water, the bishop said.

The network supports community-based initiatives for people to manage and protect water, and advocates for water as a human right.

“I have witnessed the seriousness of the issue in our continent and around the world,” the bishop said.  “Churches and ecumenical groups should study contemporary concerns and engage with each other to find solutions.”

He advises churches to develop expertise from biblical and theological perspectives, as well as on practical dimensions.

Stewards pour water into well during worship.

Biblical and theological reflections in the “Water for Life” the WCC’s public policy guideline, include:  “Water is a symbol of life.  The Bible affirms water as the cradle of life, an expression of God’s grace in perpetuity for the whole of creation.  It is a basic condition for life to exist on earth and is to be preserved and shared for the benefit of all creatures and all creation.”

The guideline also points out that “water is the source of health and wellbeing, and requires responsible action from us as human beings, as partners and priests of creation.  As churches, we are called to participate in the mission of God to bring about a new creation where life in abundance is assured to all.”

With threat to freshwater supplies across the planet, conflicts among people, communities, regions and nations have arisen over water, undermining biodiversity and balance in the ecosystem.

“Water scarcity is a growing source of conflict related to international watercourses and river basins,” says the document, which expresses concern about access to freshwater and sanitation.

In a workshop on “Water for Life,” speakers raised issues.

Marcello Varos

Marcello Varos, an educator with the Catholic Diocese of Sao Paulo, Brazil, relates Benedictine spirituality to water.

He is concerned about birds disappearing from a nearby river and about children, old people and marginalized people who suffer from a lack of water.

Marcello lives in Rosalio, where a European company administered water and then left, leaving a debt and no one to purify the water.   Now the community has a public water system. 

He also told of conflict among people of Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay about paper-making companies in one country contaminating the river that flows through the other countries

Marcello calls churches to study water rights and access because “everything on earth and all living beings are from God, who cares for the earth and puts us in administrative care of the waters, rivers and lakes.  We should not destroy what God created.”

He urges churches to study their religious heritage on the environment and accept protection of creation as a priority, so they do not destroy life.

Bishop Barbel Wartenberg-Potter

Offering another theological perspective, Bishop Barbel Wartenberg-Potter of the Northelbian Evangelical Church in Germany, reminded that “every human life begins for nine months in a small sac of water inside a mother’s womb.”

After living in the water in the womb, she said, “coming to dry land is a shock, according to psychologists and psychiatrists.  Similarly, we begin our Christian life with the water of baptism—drowned in water and emerging as new human beings, immersed and nurtured by the water.”

“Water is close to the origins of life in the creation story,” she said.  “After separation of dark from light, came separation of water and land.  Beside water in a pond or seaside, we can meditate on our origins in water.”

Barbel helped Brot für die Welt (Bread for the World) prepare a theological document on water.

She added that the WCC through Justice, Peace and Creation work is committed to address water.

Water Pots
Earthen pots are part of worship setting.

“Water disagreements are a source of violence, greed and selfishness,” she observed.  “We are renewed from those human attitudes by baptism, washing us into new life.

“I see God at work in nature and experience God’s goodness in creation.  I am dedicated to preserving water, especially after the World Economic Forum two weeks before the assembly.

“Economically, water is a more important resource than oil.  The scarcity of water has incredible impact,” Barbel said.

“Women walk hours to fetch enough water for their families to live for one day,” she said, telling of an African woman challenging people at the World Economic Forum to put a heavy pot of water on their heads and walk around a tent, making sure no water spilled.

That exercise strengthened Barbel’s commitment.

“We can change life when we pipe water into rural African communities,” she said.

“We have seen from the tsunami and recent floods how destructive water can be,” she added.  “We also know that Lake Geneva and the Rhine River were once threatened, but decisive measures by communities brought fish and other life resources back. 

“We can make a difference for ourselves and future generations,” Barbel said.

Other speakers told what is being done in Latin America.

  Marcel Achkar of a Uruguayan commission working for an amendment to the national constitution to prohibit the privatization of water and Naidison Batista of the Movement of Community Organizations helping establish the One Million Cistern Program in arid Northeast Brazil, told of concrete solutions of local communities and of advocacy for water as a resource for the common good and a human right.

Marcel Achkar

Marcel described Uruguay as a small country with a civic tradition of public cooperatives for social services.  In 1952, a public cooperative provided water solutions, reaching 90 percent of urban areas with drinking water and 60 percent with sewers.

In 1992, he said, interests considered “neo-liberals” there privatized services for profit, transferring water resources to a Swiss French organization and, in 2000, to a Spanish company.

“After Uruguay experienced privatization, we formed the National Organization in Defense of Life and Water. 

“To stop privatization and prevent it in our constitution, we established that water is a human right,” Marcel said.  “That principle is important for defending water resources.  From it, we establish water as a public domain in property conflict.”

Religious and grassroots organizations across Uruguay collected signatures to change the constitution by initiative.  In 2004, they educated and organized people through cultural and religious groups, holding debates on social, cultural, political, environmental, economic and religious perspectives.  Passing it with 65 percent of the popular vote also brought in new government leadership.

“Recently, the state of Uruguay bought buildings and equipment from a private firm and established a national price on water through a stable, sustainable management of sewage and water resources,” Marcel said.

Naidison described community projects in Northeast Brazil where 24 million people live in a semiarid area with little water or rain. 

Naidison Batista

People held back by the lack of water now have cisterns, cement containers that can store up to 16,000 liters of rainwater drained from rooftops, enough to supply a family for six to eight months.

By mobilizing community organizations, the movement helped people develop policies that promote health care and agrarian reform to fit the region’s realities by providing access to land and water, technical assistance for family farms, natural seed production, democratic communication and education programs.

“People want a voice in making policies, because they have experience in the area where they struggle against drought as a natural part of life,” Naidison said.

The cistern program is based on respecting, involving and engaging people, so they know how to make cisterns, evaluate contractors’ bids, do the construction, determine labor and materials, and make policies,” he said.

“For the first time, Brazil experienced resource allocation in the federal budget,” he said.  “A farmer in my region said before the cistern system, he had to sell his vote in order to have water.  Now he is free.

“People learn from little things we do in civil society to create the common good,” Naidison said.