Water is Life, Sanitation is Dignity

747 views Published on 22nd March 2017

In Cape Town, as a result of diminished rainfall over the past year, the dams supplying water for our metropolitan area are only 29 percent full, this at a time when we cannot expect our winter rains to begin before May. While I won't go here into the linkages between the El Niño phenomenon and global warming, our water crisis had the effect of concentrating my mind on how precious water is and on how devastating the effects of scarcity can be.

But apart from that, why would an archbishop be talking about water? Well, to begin with, water is mentioned 722 times in the Bible. It literally frames the Biblical story. The first book, Genesis, starts with a wonderful poetic image of water and Creation.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. 2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. (Genesis 1)

Before creation even took place, the waters were there. Water is a primal element giving birth to life. It is no wonder that when a child is created the waters break to symbolise the start of the journey – a new life coming into the world. And in the last book of the Bible, Revelations, we have a wonderful vision of re-creation. The followers of Jesus are being persecuted and in the midst of pain and destruction, John the writer encourages them to persevere, with this vision of re-creation.

22 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse.

What a beautiful vision! Here, at the heart of restored creation, we encounter the river of the water of life, flowing from the hand of God. Water is channelled, sustaining life, not ravaging through floods. The water is clear and clean. What a vision for our nations, if we work together to clean our rivers, and to plant trees – for the healing of the nations. Imagine clean rivers and trees soaking up carbon pollution and breathing out life-giving oxygen.

Water is particularly important in Scripture because of the lands where the biblical stories take place. They are dry lands, with no great rivers like the countries of Egypt or Mesopotamia. Israel only has one main river – the Jordan, the rest of their water supply is dependent on the rains. So the yearning for water as the spring of life is a part of daily life. And so these scriptures resonate with us in sub-Saharan Africa where rain-fed agriculture accounts for more than 95% of farmed land. Without water there is no life. (International Water Management Institute)

Water was present at the start of creation, and the entire history of God’s work on Earth is framed by rivers.

Water in Southern Africa

As I have mentioned, we are currently experiencing drought where I live. We have only three months' supply left. And in South Africa as a whole, the drought impacts us all in many ways – the most obvious being food shortages leading to price increases, affecting the poor disproportionately. Many casual workers have lost their jobs. The lack of water is one of the biggest business risks to our country , and with climate change drought will become more and more common. Last year the following story brought the shortages home as a reality.

The family of a young pupil killed at Hlathelidumayo at KwaNongoma in northern KwaZulu-Natal, apparently over drinking water, is battling to come to terms with their loss. Fifteen-year-old Qiniso Mhlongo was stoned by a group of boys and died a day later in hospital. Community members say the altercation started over water. It's believed boys from another village accused some girls of dirtying the available water. Qiniso was apparently trying to protect the girls from the boys who were harassing them. His mother, who tried to stop the fight, was also injured in the face. Police in the area have since then arrested two people in connection with the murder.

In another part of the church in Southern Africa, Mozambique, climate change leads to the opposite effect – of severe flooding which washes away homes and topsoil, leaving the land degraded and crops destroyed.

Water justice

The distribution of water is based on inequality. We cannot talk of water without talking of sanitation and for that reason the title of my talk is Water is Life, Sanitation is Dignity. Many of the threats to water are coming from companies who pollute rivers with industrial pollution. We suffer a lot from acid mine drainage affecting our water systems.

The shareholders of mining companies make a profit, but the local communities are left with water degradation. As a church we stand firmly against fracking, since for short-term profit there is a danger of water systems being polluted for decades. Large corporate farms are also responsible, as the run-off from artificial fertilisers and pesticides pollutes the rivers. In robust debates with such company, called courageous conversations with the mining sector in particular, we are slowly finding each other in service to the community.

Southern Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world. This is seen nowhere as clearly as in terms of access to water and sanitation. Whereas one family waters their vast lawn and fills their swimming pool, another shares a single tap with 20 neighbours. Whereas one family has four bathrooms, another shares a communal toilet with dozens of people.

Girls going out to use the toilet at night risk being raped and residents are afraid of being robbed Children play in dirty water draining from toilets and polluted water and raw sewerage routinely flow between and through homes, making these communities places of illness and death. Lack of access to clean and safe sanitation routinely emerges as the number one concern for those living in these communities It has recently been estimated that sixteen million people in South Africa do not have access to basic sanitation facilities (1 in 3 people). (“Water is life, sanitation is dignity” South African Human Rights Commission.)

According to the World Council of Churches' Ecumenical Water Network, almost 900 million people do not have basic access to the lifesaving 20 litres of clean water they need each day – not only because water is scarce but because the needs and rights of marginalised communities are not given priority. Poverty and power relations are reflected and reinforced in who has access to and control over water. I have experienced this myself in the Kingdom of Lesotho, which has vast dams of water for South Africa, yet the country's own people are suffering severe water restrictions. In Lesotho, you bathe with a basin, yet when you travel to the neighbouring city of Bloemfontein, the taps run freely and the water sprinklers are keeping lawns green and the pools full.

What we can do

What can we do about this? Remember that water is sacred. We have lost the sense of sacredness of water, seeing it as ‘something that comes out of a tap’. How can we reconnect with water as something holy and precious? Christians know the name of the river that Jesus was baptised in - the Jordan River. And yet where did the water come from that was used for your baptism? Where is your Jordan River? Can you identify it and see if it is clean and free from rubbish?

Water is a sacred gift from God and, speaking for Christians, it's not only not just full-time conservationists who are called to be stewards of God’s creation – it's all of us! So we need to educate ourselves and understand where the water we use comes from. We need to look at how we use it – make sure we use water carefully, turn off dripping taps, check our water meters to make sure there are no leaks. In the South African summer, we have to water our gardens early in the morning so as not to waste water through evaporation in the midday sun. I am proud to see some of our churches now putting in boreholes. When one of our churches in Mozambique built a new church building, they put in a water pump right at the church door to encourage people to come!

Let water inspire and heal us – let us keep connected to natural water source areas and help ensure we have examples left of pristine habitats to leave as a legacy to our children and children’s children.

Care for our oceans and rivers

Enormous quantities of rubbish end up in rivers and oceans. The statistics on waste are shocking – by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans per weight than fish.

The best way we care for our oceans and rivers is to be passionate campaigners against waste – in the Diocese of Harare in Zimbabwe each church has adopted a local area where they clean up, such as a taxi rank or a stretch of street. They talk there of the “4 Rs”: Reduce, Re-use, Recycle and then Rejoice! because once they have cleaned up they plant something beautiful in place of the trash. Last year I was proud of the church's Mothers' Union, when they banned the use of Styrofoam cups at church social functions – stopping the use of a material that breaks down into tiny particles that are now forming endlessly circulating masses in the sea.

Reduce your meat eating

One of the biggest environmental impacts of a meat-eating diet is the consumption of vast amounts of water for livestock production. Most of it is used to irrigate the grains and hay fed to the animals.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, in South Africa it takes 860 litres of water to produce a 500g grain-fed steak. That is the equivalent of 13 showers! Switching to a plant-based diet or reducing the amount of meat in your diet is one of the most important choices you can make to save water.

Fight climate change

The most important message I can leave you with is this – if you want to do something to help the people of Africa, change your lifestyle, influence your politicians and let us make fighting climate change the highest priority on all of our agendas. Churches, NGOs, businesses: the time has come for us to work together and to fight climate change. Without much more action, the future is bleak, very bleak indeed. We stand at the Eleventh Hour.

I want to end with a challenge to us all:

In the Anglican Communion's Environmental Network we have learned that to conquer the environmental challenges we face we must learn from indigenous people and so I would like to end with this prophetic quote attributed to an elder of Hopi people of Arizona, one of the First Nations of the United States.

You have been telling the people that this is the Eleventh Hour, now you must go back and tell the people that this is the Hour. And there are things to be considered . . .Where are you living? What are you doing? What are your relationships? Are you in right relation? Where is your water? Know your garden. It is time to speak your Truth. Create your community. Be good to each other. And do not look outside yourself for the leader.

There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are torn apart and will suffer greatly. Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above water. And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate. At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally, least of all ourselves. For the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a halt.

The time for the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves! ………, All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration. We are the ones we've been waiting for.

By Archbishop Thabo Makgoba

South African Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town.


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