Our Thirsty World

Just Waterby Christiana Z. Peppard

Orbis. 230p $28

In a desperate move to bring fresh water to its parched northern regions, China is constructing the South-North Water Diversion Project at a cost of $50 billion. In the Near East, the Jordan River, shared among several countries, is dangerously low and heavily polluted, while in the United States the practice of extracting gas and oil by hydraulic fracturing proceeds at breakneck speed.

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These and other major problems are at the heart of Christiana Peppard’s important work, Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis. Dr. Peppard focuses on fresh water, and in a short, 200-page treatise argues that the crises surrounding fresh water globally should be a matter of deep concern for religious believers and all people of good will. Although the author writes from a Roman Catholic perspective, specialists in water issues, theologians and ethicians, as well as general readers, will profit from this pointed approach.

The author begins with a brief, well-developed analysis of theological insights from liberation theology, eco-theology and feminist theology—“theologies from the margins.” In her discussion of the prickly differences between general theological statements and the concrete realities of particular peoples and contexts, Peppard eschews the general and works from embodied experiences. For, as she writes, while water is a universal element basic to all life and the planet itself, water is always a particular water in a particular place.

The second chapter, on the global fresh water crises, “a primer,” charts the impact of issues including overuse, pollution and contamination on water. Here the author distinguishes between “nonconsumptive use,” in which water is withdrawn and then “returned in a useable way to the watershed” and “consumptive use,” referring to the use of water not returned. In particular, since agriculture consumes between 70 percent and 80 percent of fresh water, Peppard sets her sharpest focus on this critical area of water use. Later chapters cover agriculture in more detail, the plight of the Jordan River (which the author visited firsthand), the interchange between climate change and water, and the controversial practice of extracting oil and gas through hydraulic fracturing.

The foundations for Peppard’s ethical analyses lie in her development, first, of the human right to water, including the 2010 United Nations declaration of the human right to water. She then follows with an analysis of Catholic social teaching for a discussion of water as a “‘right-to-life’ issue for the twenty-first century.” Here Peppard uses the image of “stewardship” for her analysis, employing mainly papal documents from recent and current popes for statements on access to fresh water and the human right to water. She leaves the reader with a key question: “One wonders what it would take to prioritize...issues of fresh water access in the global church.”

The text concludes with a penetrating discussion of the Gospel story of the Samaritan woman who meets Jesus at the well. This discussion alone is worth the price of the book. Her exegesis examines the interchange between the important roles of woman as water collectors in the ancient world and women today.

Dr. Peppard is to be commended for her foray into the arguments and analyses of water from a theological and ethical perspective. At the same time, I have several concerns that I hope she examines later. Her brief but well honed discussions of theological themes and Catholic social teaching need to be applied more fully. How, for example, do liberation, feminist and ecological theologies affect agricultural and fracking issues? What would the preferential option for the poor from Catholic social teaching offer to the analysis? The fine chapter on the waters of the Jordan could discuss critical justice issues involving Palestinians; the church’s emphasis on distributive justice emphasis would work well in an analysis of “just” water.

Furthermore, there are tensions between liberation, ecological and feminist theologies and Catholic social teaching around women’s issues and the church’s anthropocentric focus. I hope that in her further work on fresh water, Professor Peppard moves beyond a stewardship model of human-nature relationship to a more holistic image, like “intimacy” (used by Thomas Berry), to describe the interrelationship among humans and all creation. At one point she hints at including the nonhuman world but does not develop the idea. That move would also involve a discussion of water’s right to flourish, following in the steps of recent Maryknoll statements among others.

These are small matters compared with this important work’s request to readers to go beyond a view that water is “just” or “only” water to the justice questions surrounding access, distribution and use of water. Dr. Peppard has initiated a key discussion for the 21st century.

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