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Journey to Justice

By Joe Gunn


Is water ‘sacred,’ or is it ‘a human right’?

Elder Josephine Mandamin, an Anishinabek initiator of the “Mother Earth Walks,” takes the responsibility to care for water very, very seriously. Now moving about slowly herself, with the aid of a walker, she once lead Water Walks around the five Great Lakes, and even covered the length of the St. Lawrence River on foot. She believes that women, as life-givers, have a special responsibility to protect water as a sacred gift from the Creator, as the “lifeblood of Mother Earth.”

Mandamin was a keynote speaker before 60 religious women, men and their associates at 2017’s National Meeting of the Canadian Religious Conference’s members responsible for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation. The Toronto event, taking place over three days in June, struggled to answer why, every 3.5 seconds, a child dies of water-borne disease, why 2 billion people around the world must drink dirty water, why 2.5 billion have inadequate sanitation, and why, here in Canada, 73 per cent of First Nations communities have water systems at medium to high risk and where, in 2015, 1,838 communities lived under boil water advisories.

This month also marked the second anniversary of the release of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Sí. Francis mentions water 47 times in that document, concluding that there is a human right to safe drinking water. So should Christians consider water as “sacred,” a “human right,” or something more? More importantly, how should we act in a world where water is being ruthlessly polluted, incessantly wasted, and increasing sold as a commodity available only to those who can afford to pay?

Maude Barlow has spent decades answering that question. The national chair of the Council of Canadians has lived through a long series of “blue” periods — co-writing Blue Gold (with Tony Clarke) in 2002, Blue Covenant (2007) and Blue Future (in 2013). She wonders why Canada has yet no national water strategy, why 99 per cent of our rivers and lakes are unprotected, and urges the boycott of companies like Nestlé, that treat water as a saleable (and highly lucrative) private commodity.

Barlow was asked by the UN General Assembly President, Maryknoll Father Miguel d’Escoto, in 2008, to become the Senior Adviser on Water. In this role she worked tirelessly to have the global community include water and sanitation as human rights. (How ironic that Father d’Escoto passed away on June 8, the same day Barlow was addressing the Canadian religious.)

The “Blue Communities” project reports that in 2010 the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution recognizing the human rights to water and sanitation and acknowledged that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realization of all human rights.

In September 2011 the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, and called on governments to take concrete action by developing plans of action, establishing monitoring and accountability mechanisms, and ensuring affordable services for everyone.

In June 2012 Canada recognized the human rights to water and sanitation at the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. But Canada has yet to develop a plan of action to implement these rights.

Many religious congregations in Canada are now considering becoming “Blue Communities” as well as asking the Canadian Religious Conference itself to join this movement. This designation entails taking three actions: recognizing water and sanitation as human rights, banning the sale of bottled water in their facilities and at events they sponsor, and promoting publicly financed, owned and operated water and waste water systems.

Canadians, especially in a spring season where flooding has affected several communities, may think that the protection of water sources is not a serious issue. But when President Donald Trump has moved to cut 97 per cent of funding to projects that protect the Great Lakes, and when the previous federal government gutted the Fisheries Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act and the entire Environmental Assessment Act, we have little time to make up for these serious reversals. And when bottled water illustrates how we can make this previously accessible-to-all resource a commodity, with 465 billion litres of bottled water sold yearly, and islands of discarded plastic floating in the Pacific Ocean, we should be convinced it is time to change course.

Water is many things: a sacred element, a human right — or perhaps even more profoundly considered — a gift from God, intrinsically valuable in itself. It should also be seen by authentic believers as an entry point toward many justice concerns: wetland preservation, healthy living, opposition to destructive mining practices and extractive industries that destroy essential aquifers, respect for indigenous livelihoods and traditional knowledge, and more. Above all, I find inspiration in Francis’ poetic reference to water in Laudato Sí, describing it as “a caress of God.” If we fully took this to heart, our actions to respect and protect water would change immediately and profoundly.

Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice,, a member-driven, faith-based public policy organization in Ottawa focused on ecological justice, refugee rights and poverty elimination.