Life’s Foundation: A Statement on Protecting Water

Life’s Foundation: A Statement on Protecting Water, September 20, 2015

As Catholics, our faith in the God of Jesus Christ compels us to take a stand on behalf of life, particularly where it is threatened or vulnerable.  As Appalachians, our love for the land and its people requires us to seek ways of protecting the resources that sustain life and livelihood here in this mountain region that we call home.  It is because of these convictions that we now speak in defense of the streams, rivers, lakes, and groundwater of our region and our planet.

Throughout the Bible, water is a central symbol of the life-giving power of God.  In the beginning, God’s spirit brings forth “swarms of living creatures” from the waters of earth (Gen. 1:20).  For Hagar and Ishmael, Moses and the people of Israel, God’s provision of water in the wilderness is a sign of God’s promise and God’s faithfulness (Gen. 21:19, Ex. 17:3-6).  In many places, particularly the Psalms, the people’s thirst for water symbolizes their need and desire for God, as well as God’s power and abundance.  Likewise, in the life of Jesus, water is a symbol of the life given through baptism, and in the Gospel of John, Jesus tells the woman at the well that “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.  The water I will give them will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life,” (John 4:14; cf. John 7:37-38).

It is no wonder that water is such a powerful symbol in this regard, for it is truly impossible to overstate the importance of fresh water to life on earth.  Every human achievement depends on it: our agriculture, our industry, our intellectual endeavors, our capacity for spiritual awareness, and our very bodies rely on the availability of this unique liquid.  To date, all of the ingenuity of modern science and technology has been unable to produce a substitute for water’s life-giving and life-sustaining properties.  In his recent encyclical, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, Pope Francis devotes several paragraphs to the issue of water, stating that “access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights” (no. 30).

For these reasons, all who claim to be pro-life must also make a commitment to protecting and conserving this precious resource.

For while water may seem to be abundant, only a small percentage of the water on our planet is fresh water available for use: 97.5% of the water on earth is salt water, and the majority of the planet’s fresh water is frozen in the polar regions.  Population growth, increasing demand from industry and agriculture, and changing climate patterns have led many to speak of a “global water crisis” such that the U.N. estimates that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world’s population will live under water stress conditions.[1]  Greater scarcity of fresh water will not only lead to higher costs of food and other products, but in many regions is also likely to be a source of conflict and is a burden that will fall disproportionately upon the world’s poor.

In Appalachia, we are blessed with abundant annual rainfall, but this does not mean that we can afford to be complacent about protecting our water, as was recently demonstrated by a chemical spill in the Elk River which left hundreds of thousands of people in Charleston,West Virginia, and the surrounding area without water for several weeks in January 2014.  Though this incident may have been particularly dramatic, sadly, it was not particularly unusual.  On both a large and a small scale, assaults upon the waters of Appalachia have been persistent throughout the history of the region, where the profitability of industry is often placed ahead of the health of communities and ecosystems.  Today, our rivers, streams, and groundwater face several serious threats:

  • Coal production—whether through mountaintop removal (MTR) or conventional mining—has been devastating for many Appalachian watersheds and communities. Not only have several thousand miles of streams been buried or poisoned by valley fills produced by MTR, but many others have been blackened by coal slurry, a toxic mixture of chemicals and coal by-product that is a result of the “washing” process, which itself may consume millions of gallons of water a day.  Other streams run bright orange from acid runoff from abandoned mines, which the EPA identifies as the most common form of water contamination in the mid-Atlantic region.  In the hollows of Appalachia, surface mining has aggravated the destructiveness of flash flooding by removing topsoil and trees that would have absorbed the heavy rainfalls.
  • Hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) technology, which has driven the recent development of natural gas in the region, also poses a threat to our water resources. Contrary to the industry’s claims that fracking poses no danger, many residents of areas where fracking has taken place in the past several years have seen significant declines in their water quality in that time.  Fracking requires large amounts of water—3 to 5 million gallons per well is a conservative estimate—which is generally taken from local rivers and streams.  Moreover, the transport and disposal of “flowback” water, which can contain known carcinogens, is an issue which may be even more problematic than fracking itself.
  • Improper handling and storage of industrial or human waste and chemical agents has caused significant damage to our rivers, many of which are also a source of drinking water for major population centers.

These threats to our water are not only problematic for cities and towns; they are also devastating for rural areas and for plant and animal populations, which themselves have inherent value as a part of God’s revelation in the created world.  As the Catholic Bishops of Appalachia wrote twenty years ago, our actions as human individuals and societies take place within a “web of life,” in which human flourishing cannot be separated from the well-being of the entire community of life.  Though we understand the importance of economic development and jobs for the people of our region, we reject the false dichotomy of “economy versus environment” because we know that a sustainable economy cannot be built on practices that are destructive of the natural world.[2]   Careless exploitation of water, land, plants, and creatures is always connected to careless disregard for human people and communities.

We therefore call upon our sisters and brothers in Christ and all people of good will in Appalachia to make the protection and conservation of our region’s water a priority that will not be sacrificed for corporate profit, political expediency, or personal convenience.  We will strive for the cultivation of sustainable personal habits with respect to water use in our own lives, such as being careful not to waste water in our homes and reducing the amount of meat and animal products we consume.[3]

We issue a special call to clergy—bishops, priests, deacons, as well as religious and lay pastoral associates—to make the protection of our water a part of your teaching ministry, from the pulpit and in local publications and church programs.  We ask you to study the Church’s teaching on care of creation if you have not yet done so, for you have a special responsibility as leaders for educating and encouraging Christians to protect the earth, its resources, and its creatures.

We urge our municipal and state lawmakers to adopt a “precautionary principle” with regard to our water resources such as Pope Francis recommends in his encyclical On Care for Our Common Home: namely, that “If objective information suggests that serious and irreversible damage may result, a project should be halted or modified, even in the absence of indisputable proof,” (no. 186).  Such a principle would effectively reverse the burden of proof from a situation in which individuals and communities must conclusively prove that harm has been done—which often can only be done after irreversible damage has occurred—to one that would require industries to show that their operations are safe to the health of our water and the lives that depend on it before proceeding with a given project.

As the United States Catholic Bishops stated in 1991, “The environmental crisis of our own day constitutes an exceptional call to conversion. As individuals, as institutions, as a people, we need a change of heart to save the planet for our children and generations yet unborn.”[4]  In all our actions, we turn in prayer to God’s Spirit to turn the hearts of our society and to strengthen, enliven, and sustain us in the work of justice, as water brings forth life on earth.

 

[1] See http://www.unwater.org/statistics/thematic-factsheets/en/.

[2] Catholic Bishops of Appalachia, At Home in the Web of Life (Catholic Committee of Appalachia, 2007ed.), 63.

[3] Numerous sources argue that shifting to a plant-based diet is one of the most effective means of reducing out “water footprint.” See, e.g., Arjen Y. Hoekstra, “The hidden water use behind meat and dairy,” at http://waterfootprint.org/media/downloads/Hoekstra-2012-Water-Meat-Dairy.pdf.

[4] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Renewing the Earth: A Call to Reflectionand Action on the Environment in Light of Catholic Social Teaching (November 1991), at http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/environment/renewing-the-earth.cfm

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