Water Justice: A Report on Trinity Institute 2017

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Trinity Church Wall Street: not an institution one might automatically think of in terms of social justice. But for the past 40 plus years, this historic Episcopal parish in Lower Manhattan has hosted Trinity Institute, an annual conference open to all that “presents emerging and inclusive theological and social perspectives and engages participants in inquiry, dialogue, and reflection.” Thanks to the wonders of technology, participants from around the US and around the world can participate each year remotely through dozens of partner sites.

This year, the topic was water justice and commenced on World Water Day (March 22). For those of us who have easy access to plentiful, clean water to meet most or all of our needs, we may not be aware either of the challenges faced by millions around the globe who do not have adequate water (or sanitation, completely related) or of the link between water and theological/spiritual perspectives. However, water raises issues of justice and equity, which makes it a theological issue. The speakers, storytellers, artists and others featured in Water Justice laid out from many angles why we absolutely must be concerned about – and take action on – water.

Session 1 of the conference was entitled “Water: Commons or Commodity?” and presented the following challenge: “The United Nations has declared water as a human right. Global markets regard it as a commodity. Can a fresh approach to market capitalism serve the common good, or does the world need a new and different system of exchange?” Maude Barlow, long-time Canadian water activist, and Christiana Zenner Peppard, a theologian from Fordham University, were the featured speakers, giving powerful statements on the issues.

In Session 2, “The Global and the Local,” a stellar panel of experts presented both dire statistics and information about hopeful, doable initiatives communities can take if there is political will. The moderator, Catherine McVay Hughes, was former Manhattan Community Board One Chair. Panelists were William Golden from the New York/New Jersey Storm Surge Working Group, Siobhan Collins, Manager of the Water Program at Ceres, and Robert Freudenberg, vice president for energy and environmental programs at Regional Plan Association (RPA).

Session 3 was entitled “What Churches Are Doing to Make a Difference,” which focused on how people of faith are working for water justice throughout the world. Archbishop Thabo Makgoba spoke live from St. George’s Cathedral, Cape Town, South Africa, and we saw moving vignettes from inspiring projects in Cuba and elsewhere. The link between water/sanitation justice, the common good, and theology were unmistakable.

The final session, “Being Agents of Change,” featured an energetic leading climate scientist, Katharine Hayhoe from Texas Tech University, who discussed the sobering facts about climate change but also offered a number of practical solutions to the problem, many of which are well underway in Texas.

Some urgent take-away facts from Water Justice, vital to all of us, include the following:

  • Access to clean water and adequate sanitation go hand-in-hand.
  • Access to water and sanitation should be considered a common good, not a commodity for sale on the open market. This means that governments must ensure water and sanitation for their people, but there is also a place for private sector initiatives. Public/private partnerships are often the gold standard in addressing these challenges worldwide.
  • Unbelievably in the 21st century, 780 million people do not have access to an improved water source.
  • An estimated 2.5 billion people (more than 35% of the world’s population) lack access to improved sanitation.
  • According to the United Nations and UNICEF, one in five girls of primary-school age are not in school, compared to one in six boys. One factor accounting for this difference is the lack of sanitation facilities for girls reaching puberty. Girls are also more likely to be responsible for collecting water for their family, making it difficult for them to attend school during school hours. The installation of toilets and latrines may enable school children, especially menstruating girls, to further their education by remaining in the school system.
  • An estimated 801,000 children younger than five years of age perish from diarrhea each year, mostly in developing countries. This amounts to 11% of the 7.6 million deaths of children under the age of five and means that about 2,200 children are dying every day as a result of diarrheal diseases. It is unsafe drinking water, inadequate availability of water for hygiene, and lack of access to sanitation together that contribute to about 88% of deaths from diarrheal diseases. In other words, this death rate is not inevitable: these deaths are highly preventable.

Water Justice did not leave us totally depressed and demolished! Rather, speakers and audience members from around the world offered rays of hope, positive directions and practical things each of us can do, especially here in the US but also around the world:

  • A storm the size of Sandy that wreaked havoc on New York and New Jersey in 2012 is inevitable. It can be “tamed” to the size of a normal storm, however, with off-the-shelf technology that could be used to construct a hurricane protection barrier off the coast of New York. Such a system is already in use in places such as New Bedford, Mass. We citizens can pressure our elected officials to study these types of issues in our communities and commit the funds. If we are someone who wields power in the private sector, we can use our leverage to bring constructive public/private initiatives about – for the common good.
  • From Siobhan Collins, we learned about Ceres, “a non-profit organization advocating for sustainability leadership. We mobilize a powerful network of investors, companies and public interest groups to accelerate and expand the adoption of sustainable business practices and solutions to build a healthy global economy.” Ceres’ mission is “mobilizing investor and business leadership to build a thriving, sustainable global economy.”
  • Those of us with funds invested in the stock market can examine which corporations and entities are part of our portfolios and can make investment decisions about which companies operate responsibly on water and sanitation issues and which do not.
  • In the US, the majority of our public water sources provide most Americans with excellent drinkable water. We as individuals can make the conscious decision to drink tap water over bottled water, thus greatly eliminating plastic waste and limiting our support of corporations that make money from water.
  • We can support efforts in our communities to ensure safe drinking water, and adequate sanitation, for all of our neighbors. The ongoing situation in Flint, Michigan, is an enormous disgrace in this country that we call the greatest in the world. Officials who have been responsible for this tragedy need to be held to account, and other localities must be put on notice that similar scenarios cannot be repeated without impunity.

Stay tuned for future offerings from Trinity Institute – they are well worth the time!