Advent 2009, Week Two Day Five

One of the most basic features of the real economy is water. Water is, quite simply, a matter of life and death, whether it is a case of too little (drought) or too much (flooding). The very first words of the Bible are: ‘In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.’


Advent 2009 – A World In Waiting

Week Three – A New Morality

Day Five -A Matter of Life and Death – Water


Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will

not be afraid,

for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he

has become my salvation.

With joy you will draw water from the wells of

salvation. And you will say on that day:

Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name;

make known his deeds among the nations;

proclaim that his name is exalted.

Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done

gloriously; let this be known in all the earth.

Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for

great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.’Isaiah 12:2-6


Millions of small landholders in India have turned to extracting ground water so as to nurture their meager crops. So much so that the groundwater is being over-exploited, according to a warning from the International Water Management Institute in August this year. It also reminded us that rice requires a much greater amount of water than does, say, wheat, but that rice is Asia’s main staple. All the more worrying, it noted, as this year’s scarce monsoon rains have highlighted the region’s vulnerability to water shortages. Meanwhile, that same month, Typhoon Morakot, the worst ever tropical storm to hit Taiwan, dumped 9 feet of rain in three days.


One of the most basic features of the real economy is water. Water is, quite simply, a matter of life and death, whether it is a case of too little (drought) or too much (flooding). The very first words of the Bible are: ‘In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.’


Interesting: the story begins not with God creating out of nothing but with the deep. God proceeds to separate the waters – first, vertically, so that some are above the heavens (a future source of rain) and others are below the heavens. Next, horizontally, the waters below the heavens are divided, so that dry land appears. Then God breathes over the waters and life is generated. The fundamental importance of water has been recognized by almost every religion. But with a difference. The pagan religions of the Ancient Near East were aware of the power of water and worshiped various water deities. The Jewish religion, however, focused on the justice of the one God in his deployment of water. Contrast the story of the universal flood in the ancient Mesopotamian religion with that of the Book of Genesis. In the former, Enlil, the God of breath and wind, had become so irritated by the noise made by the humans whom he had created that he sent a flood to wipe out the bothersome human race. In the biblical account, God sends a flood not because he was annoyed but because of the wickedness and moral corruption of most of humankind; only Noah and his family were saved, because they were just.


As with the story of the flood, so with a biblical story of a drought. Elijah famously mocked the priests of Baal whose religious antics were unable to bring about the much needed rain. And here, too, the big difference. Elijah’s God was a God of mercy and compassion. Today we are faced with daunting problems of both flooding and drought. By the year 2025, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation’s Water Development and Management Unit, 1,800 million people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world population could be under stress conditions. India and Kenya are among the countries already experiencing severe drought. At the same time we seem to be experiencing ever more destructive floods, monsoons and cyclones. In May last year, some 140,000 people died in Burma as a result of Cyclone Nargis, the 8th deadliest cyclone of all time.


Once upon a time we could simply interpret these phenomena as acts of God or ‘natural disasters’. That will no longer do. It is our own activity that is responsible for much of the problem. Ironically, as the Stern Report pointed out, it is the increase in CO2 which is contributing both to water scarcity in some regions and leading to greater flooding in others: ‘Melting glaciers will increase flood risk during the wet season and strongly reduce dry-season water supplies to one-sixth of the world’s population, predominantly in the Indian sub-continent, parts of China and the Andes in South America… Warming is very likely to intensify the water cycle, reinforcing existing patterns of water scarcity and abundance and increasing the risk of droughts and floods…Preliminary estimates suggest that the fraction of land area in extreme drought at any one time will increase from 1% to 30% by the end of this century. In other regions, warmer air and warmer oceans are likely to drive more intense storms, particularly hurricanes and typhoons.’


The hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica may be impairing the Southern Ocean’s ability to mop up carbon dioxide from the earth’s atmosphere, reports the scientific magazine Nature. Meanwhile, the Himalayan glaciers, which supply water to several of the world’s greatest rivers and to 40% of the world’s population, are melting at an alarming rate.


The urgency of the problem has been duly noted. Action is being taken. People have been exploring more efficient methods of desalinization of sea water, redirection of rivers by means of dams, the building of water pipelines to remote village areas, the treatment of sewage, etc. But against this, multinationals working in developing countries often draw on precious local water supplies for their own processes of manufacturing, mining, pulping, etc.


But in the end it’s a matter not just of technology but of justice. And that takes us back to the theme of the covenant, which was explored in the readings for the second week of Advent. First of all, we have a covenant with each other. The fact that those who are suffering most from the effects of flooding and drought are not the same as those who are most responsible for the CO2 emissions highlights the reality of our shared responsibility.


But we also have another kind of covenant: a covenant between human beings and the environment. Those are the words used by Pope Benedict XVI in his Message for the 2008 World Day of Peace, as well as in his recent encyclical Caritas in Veritate, where he stresses our responsibility to strengthen ‘that covenant between human beings and the environment, which should mirror the creative love of God, from whom we come and towards whom we are journeying.’ So, we are one human family and have a shared responsibility for the use and distribution of the world’s resources. What does that mean in practice? It will undoubtedly mean a change in our lifestyle. The God of creation ordered the waters that we might have life. The God of justice demands that we use that gift justly.


Gradually, over the past three decades, our economic system has been turned on its head. The financial system has become master and the real economy its plaything. But now our real economy is crying out in pain. And we must listen.


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