Water in a Changing Climate


For some time, concern about water issues has been growing in the churches of Europe. ECEN addressed the theme in 2003 at its Fourth Assembly in Volos, Greece. The papers submitted to that Assembly and the recommendations adopted were published and widely distributed. With gratitude we note that more and more churches are placing water on their agenda. In particular, we draw attention to the significant initiatives of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, and the alliance established between churches in Switzerland and Brazil as an example of North-South ecumenical collaboration. Since 2006 the World Council of Churches has established an Ecumenical Water Network, which provides a link and a platform for the activities of the churches throughout the world (see water.oikoumene.org). Water supply and quality has become a critical matter also in many European countries and will increasingly dominate their ecological agenda.

At this stage we would share the following reflections with the churches in Europe:

1. Water – Source of Life.

Water conditions life on the planet. Without water life could not have appeared on Earth. This insight has been intuitively expressed in the Bible. In all biblical accounts of the origin of life, water plays a central role (cf. Genesis 1 and 2) and several psalms praise God for the gift of rain and running water. “You make springs gush forth in the valleys, they flow between the hills, they give drink to every beast of the field (Psalm 104:10).” All plants, all animals and, with them, all human beings depend on the availability of water. Water is the pre-condition for the rich diversity of species, but also requires its own space and respect. Extreme care is therefore required to safeguard the gift of water for the benefit of all creation, and human beings, having received a special mandate within the whole of creation, have the responsibility to protect water from over-consumption and pollution. As the source of life water has a sacred quality that has been recognised by the world’s faith traditions. All faiths have knowledge and wisdom to share about the ultimate mystery, value and meaning of water.

2. Water and Climate Change.

There are many global Climate Change effects on the planet’s water cycle prompted by warmer temperatures:

  • Warmer oceans are leading to sea-level rises already destroying coastal communities and habitats. There are additionally major concerns about the future of the Gulf Stream
  • Polar ice melt is drastically threatening marine life and reduces greenhouse gas absorption
  • The force of storms and hurricanes is increasing, with tornadoes now found in new areas
  • Glacial melting is affecting both mountain zones with changing water courses (including the Alps, Pyrenees, Andes and Himalayas) and also leading to the loss of fresh water in many countries
  • Changing rainfall patterns are prompting more severe droughts in some regions, whilst there is destructive flooding elsewhere
  • Desertification is spreading, for instance in southern parts of Europe, Australia and much of Africa

For example, here is a rapidly diminishing amount of fresh water, while at the same time there is growing concern about marine water. About 97% of the world’s water is limited in its human use because of its salinity. Of the remaining 3%, most (2.15%) is locked in glaciers and the polar ice caps. Climate change is now melting this ice and therefore mixing fresh with salt water in the world’s seas and oceans, causing a major threat to global fresh water resources.

As another illustration, reefs are in peril worldwide. As a consequence of the warming of the oceans, together with other issues such as tourism, over-fishing, construction of roads and buildings, over-exploitation by the cement and lime industries and the strong use of agro-chemicals on the coastal hinterland, large numbers of the world’s reefs are now under threat.

These reefs are the ecosystems with the most animal and plant species after the rainforests. It is calculated that they support at least 500,000 species. However, they are highly sensitive and react to long term stress prompted by global warming. 10% are damaged so badly that they cannot regenerate. Another 30% are in a critical state and will die within 10-20 years, and by 2040 a further 30% or more is likely to be destroyed. These reefs absorb huge amounts of Carbon Dioxide, and are important carbon sinks which will be lost. Such challenges now affect the whole of life on Earth.

3. Water in Europe.

Historically, Europe has been a relatively privileged continent in terms of water. Today, most nations are self-sufficient in supply. However, there are now severe and unpredictable problems in certain regions. Climate change is prompting rising sea levels in countries such as The Netherlands and Britain. Droughts and falls in the water-table in Spain, Italy and elsewhere are causing very serious water shortages and desertification, worsened by the growing demands of tourism and agro-business. Thesalia, in northern Greece, has seen a fall in the water table of several hundred metres in the past few years. Loss of top soil through karstification in countries such as Croatia and Slovenia has provoked severe erosion and the inability of the land to hold water. The Aral Sea has all but died. Even countries such as Austria are finding that water is a declining resource, with the loss of mountain glaciers. Meanwhile, flash-floods have claimed lives and livelihoods along the banks of the Danube, Rhine and Elbe.

4. Water as a common good.

With declining water resources caused by Climate Change, the pressures to commercialise water supplies are more significant and require closer public attention. Water is in principle a common good to be shared by all. The fundamental right to life is illusory without access to fresh water, and is therefore a basic human right.

Today, many people have no access to unpolluted water or can only obtain it through harsh conditions.

While in some parts water flows in abundance, in other areas it is scarce and difficult to reach. Such inequality always existed, but today it is aggravated for several reasons. Consumption and demand of water is growing. This inequality requires a common response. Though the inequality cannot be entirely overcome, common responsible action can considerably reduce its effects.

It is increasingly clear that water is a potential source of conflict between water rich regions and water poor areas. Exporting of water is becoming more of a commercial viability and issue of political contention. Almost everywhere it is becoming necessary that we use water more carefully and conserve vital sources. Overuse by some people means a lack of supply for others, and this is a matter of justice for more vulnerable communities and countries.

5. Water commodification

We are increasingly concerned about the trend to turn water into a tradable good. Recognising that water is destined to provide life for all, should point us in a different direction. The source of life must not become private property and subject to the laws of the market – competition and profit.

In the recent past, in many countries transnational corporations have taken over the control of water resources and water management. In many cases their presence has led to a rise of water prices. Europe is the seat of the headquarters of several main companies in the water sector, and although not all public utilities have been efficient, these corporations have been promoting the privatisation of water services as the only solution to increasing water distribution solving sanitation problems in southern countries (e.g. Bolivia and Tanzania). European governments and their foreign aid policies currently support this view, but there surely must be greater public and private co-operation on water policies and practices.

It is the responsibility of the churches in Europe to call for a more equal share of European aid to support public water services in the South and to watch that no undue political pressure is made through European institutions to privatise their water supplies (this privatisation is true also of some central and eastern European regions and countries). Rather the churches should endorse the right of poorer countries and communities to access water, and to maintain the control and management of their own water resources.


Water has both intrinsic and pragmatic value. In terms of human use, it can be a source of conflict, as is apparent in certain areas or times of shortage. Over-exploitation, contamination and fighting wars over water brings about death and destruction. However, we would wish to affirm that water could be an opportunity to develop common life and unity. Water, in our view, is therefore a source of dialogue, co-operation and unification between peoples, including communities of faith.

But this must encourage us to challenge practices and policies that promote greed and injustice. Instead we need to recognise limits to insatiable demand and plan together for a more sustainable future for all. The sharing of water resources more equitably and fairly within and across countries, and its affirmation as a part of God’s purposes for the whole Creation, can make for a better world.

Chaotic Climate Change is already happening. It is pressing us to find new patterns for the care and use of water habitats and supplies. Such patterns could be based on competition or conflict. However, they could equally push us into new ways of co-operation and cultural development. It is our hope that the latter will prevail within both our European institutions and our churches.

Triuggio, Milano, September 2008