Water – A Question of Life and Death


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 (1). 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 (2). In February 2006, building on these diverse efforts, the World Council of Churches proposed the establishment of an Ecumenical Water Programme, which is meant to provide a link and a platform for the activities of the churches throughout the world (3). From the beginning, ECEN has actively participated in the conversations and negotiations leading to this proposal. It now intends to continue its work on the water theme in this wider ecumenical context. 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 want to 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 Climate Change effects on the planet's water cycle. One example is the 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, underwater 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 2050 a further 30% may be destroyed. These reefs absorb huge amounts of Carbon Dioxide, and are important carbon sinks which could be lost. (4)

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, Greece and elsewhere are causing very serious water shortages and desertification, worsened by the growing demands of tourism and agro-business. 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.

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. 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.

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 points 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 the 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. European governments and their foreign aid policies currently support this view.

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.


The National Council of Churches of Brazil (CONIC), the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB), the Swiss Conference of Bishops (CES), and the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches (FSPC), jointly signed the attached 'Ecumenical Declaration on Water as a human right and a public good' in April 2005. They invite churches in Europe to support this declaration, to motivate public opinion and political forces in their countries to oppose moves to privatisation, and to work for the drawing up of an international convention on Water to be adopted by the United Nations.

ECEN's Water Working Group recognises the importance of this Declaration and encourages its members to understand and act ethically on the policies of both European churches and transnational corporations. The text of the declaration reads as follows:

We, the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches of Brazil and Switzerland - represented by our leaders, inspired by local initiatives taken in our parishes and encouraged by the declarations of the worldwide fellowship of churches - on the UN's "Water for Life" international decade for action (2005-2015).

We acknowledge:

  • That water is a basic precondition for all life. Without water there is no life. Having or not having access to water determines life or death. Water is a gift of God, which he offers to all so that they may use it responsibly for fullness of life. Thus water is a public good.
  • Water is a human right. The "right to an adequate food” is set down in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 25) and in the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (article 11). In putting this into practice the problems and specific needs of women (and children, particularly girls) who bear the responsibility for providing water - with consequences for women's health, through carrying heavy burdens, and for young girls who are thus prevented from attending school.
  • Water is a force of faith. Water is not only an economic commodity it also has a social, cultural, medical, religious and mystical value. In the story of creation we read that "the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." (Gen.1.2). Through Moses God provided his pilgrim people in the desert with water. For we Christians the symbolic force of water is found in baptism, "The one who believes and is baptized will be saved." (Mk.16.16). For many peoples and cultures water has a sacred significance and has value linked to its capacity to forge community and its ritual and traditional properties.
  • Water is becoming scarce for many human beings. The high pro capita use of water, population growth, wastage, lifestyle, destruction of forests, land and water reserves require that particular attention be given to water and to setting priorities for how it is used.

We demand:

  • That the human right to water be recognized at the local and international level in the same way as the right to adequate food. This right must be respected by all sectors of society but states have a particular responsibility in this area. "General Observation" No15 of the UN Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights and "the voluntary directives to support the progressive realization of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security" (in particular directive 8c) adopted by the international community at the FAO in November 2004, must be put in place without delay.
  • That water must be treated as a public good. The State must take over the commitment to guarantee access to drinking water to all of the population. This guarantee includes fixing an affordable price for water, making the necessary technical and financial means available, as well as involving local councils and communities in decisions relevant to them on the use of available water resources. Treating water as a public good also implies the commitment of states to regulate the use of water resources by peaceful means, in such a way that the right to water for all of the inhabitants of neighbouring states also be respected.
  • That the right to water should be regulated through an international convention on water to be adopted by the UN.
  • That in terms of water consumption legal priorities need to be laid down. The first is quenching the thirst of human beings and animals and ensuring the supply of water to food crops. This presupposes a preventative approach to environmental policy, in the spirit of solidarity between local government, countries and peoples.

We commit ourselves:

  • to convince our churches, congregations, institutions, ecumenical groupings and partner organizations to support this declaration and to pray for its aims;
  • together with the movements and NGOs in Brazil and Switzerland interested in these issues, to motivate public opinion, political forces and the population of our countries to work in favour of the terms set out in this declaration;
  • to lobby the governments of our countries to guarantee, through appropriate laws, the human right to water and the declaration on water as a public good, and to work for the drawing up of an international convention on water to be adopted by the UN.

National Council of Christian Churches of Brazil (CONIC)
represented by its president, Bishop Adriel de Souza Maia.
National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB)
represented by its general secretary, Dom Odilo Pedro Scherer.
Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches (FEPS)
represneted by its vice-president Ms Irène Reday.
Swiss Conference of Bishops (CES)
represented by auxiliary Bishop Peter Henrici


(1) Water – Source of Life
(2) See the home page of the Swiss Federation www.sek-feps.ch and the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops www.cnbb.org.br
(3) The relevant documents can be found through the WCC website. See www.wcc-coe.org
(4) Source: Staedte unter Wasser – 2 Milliarden Jahre. F.F. Steininger & Dietrich Maronde. Kramer 1997

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