From His All-Holiness
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew

To the Intergovernmental and International
Wings for Water Conference

The Hague
(March 20-22, 2013)

Distinguished organizers,
Esteemed political and religious leaders,
And dear conference participants,

It is a particular privilege to greet the Wings for Water intergovernmental and international conference, being a multi-stakeholder dialogue and consultation convened in The Hague as a prelude to the World Water Day 2013 and in preparation for a new global vision for water replacing the existing Millennium Development Goal on Water after 2015.

It is also a profound joy to be invited by Her Excellency Dr. Kitty van der Haijden, Ambassador for Sustainable Development for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, as well as by our beloved friend Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp, President and Founder of the Jacob Soetendorp Institute for Human Values, to address this auspicious assembly. We assure you that we are with you in mind and heart, in a shared vision and mission.

Over fifteen years ago, we declared that it is a sin to pollute and mistreat the waters of the planet.  The miracle of water cradles us from our birth, sustains us in life, and heals us in sickness. It delights us in play, enlivens our spirit, purifies our body, and refreshes our mind. We all share this miracle with the entire community of life. Indeed, each one of us is a microcosm of the oceans that sustain life. Every person at this conference, every person in the world, is in essence a miniature ocean.

(i) Decreasing Water, Increasing Populations
Nevertheless, as we are all well aware, water is primarily in jeopardy for commercial reasons being the source of people's survival, for chemical pollution reasons since it is the universal solvent, for climate reasons inasmuch as drought is spreading across the lower latitudes which are mostly "third world" countries, as well as for reasons dealing with development that causes erosion and runoff. However, there is also a large set of secondary forces such as dams which block rivers and increase evaporation, irrigation for agriculture which often causes salinization (because the water evaporates and leaves salt residues behind), oil and gas drilling which use water to pressure gas and oil to the surface, thereby contaminating underground aquifers.  In many parts of the world, agriculture is largely dependent on underground water supplies that are now almost entirely depleted.

A crucial issue - that has unfortunately not been well publicized - is that water supply is directly related to food supply. Water shortage immediately correlates to declining grain production. This problem is rapidly intensifying across Africa, Asia, and the arid lands of the Middle East. How, then, will the countries in these regions produce sufficient resources to feed their growing populations? More than half the world's people live in countries where water tables are falling. The politically troubled Middle East is the first geographic region where grain production has peaked and is now beginning to decline because of water shortages, even as populations continue to increase.

Grain production is decreasing in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. However, the largest food problems are in India and China. In India, where farmers have drilled some twenty million irrigation wells, water tables are falling rapidly and wells are starting to dry. The World Bank reports that 175 million Indians are being fed with grain produced by over-pumping. In China, over-pumping is concentrated in the North China Plain, which produces half of China's wheat and a third of its corn. How will these countries survive in the future?

Furthermore, privatizing water resources is not a long-term solution; it ultimately contributes to the problem. We must admit that we are at the initial stages of a great push by corporations and private interests to control the use of water for commercial and financial purposes. As religious leaders, we should definitely and firmly declare this as wrong and contrary to both eastern and western religious thought.  Water signifies the depth of life and the calling to cosmic transfiguration. It can never be regarded or treated as private property or become the means and end of individual interest. Indifference towards the vitality of water constitutes both a blasphemy to God and a crime against humanity. Through the pollution... of the world's waters, destruction is procured of the planet's entire ecosystem.

(ii) The Global Water Predicament
Climate change is already affecting global water supplies. Moreover, rising temperatures are boosting evaporation rates, altering rainfall patterns, and melting glaciers that feed rivers in dry seasons. Rivers are running dry from excessive irrigation. Lakes are drying and disappearing. As nations experience water scarcity, they inevitably prioritize the needs of cities and industries by diverting water from agriculture and then importing additional grain to offset the loss of food production.  These conditions highlight the strong link between water and food. Agriculture depends on water.

To put this in perspective, the average person drinks between one-half to three-quarters of a gallon of water each day. The water required to produce our food totals roughly 800 gallons per person per day. This explains why roughly seventy percent of all water is used in irrigation; another twenty percent goes to industry; while the remaining ten percent supplies residential consumption. Moreover, internationally, the problem is far more serious. Around the world, roughly one in three people lack access to safe drinking water, and a similar number lack adequate sanitation. The World Economic Forum projects that in less than twenty years the world will face "water bankruptcy" - a shortage of fresh water so huge that global food production could collapse.  With a population of over eight billion by 2040, humanity could be using over ninety percent of available freshwater, leaving only ten percent for the world's plants and animals.

This could have serious implications. Conflicts over water are, of course, as old as the story of Noah in 3,000 BC. The Pacific Institute records that 225 such conflicts have occurred through history. What is fascinating, however, is that nearly half of those conflicts have taken place in the last two decades. Are we going to see a new era of wars fought over water?  Water scarcity will inevitably affect everything from the global food supply to the growth of cities, the location of jobs, the placement of industries, and even prospects for peace in the Middle East. The oil crisis of the late 20th century will pale in comparison to the emerging water crisis of the 21st century.

(iii) The Role of Religion in the Preservation of Water
Dear friends, permit us to reemphasize a central theme in any discussion about water: Clean water is essential for life! It is essential for a healthy family, a healthy community, and a healthy world. Every living thing relies on water for survival - from humans to animals and fish, to the forests of Europe, Antarctica's penguins, and Africa's great elephants. Robbed of its water supply, the earth would be a lonely place, devoid of many of its present forms of life. Still, however, human activity relentlessly continues to pollute and destroy fresh water supplies.

For Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike, as for all the world's faith communities, clean water is a blessing from God. The earth and its resources belong first and foremost to God; they can never become private commodities. In his Commentary on the Psalms, St. Augustine states: "Everywhere let the common water of God have the glory, not the private falsehoods of men."

Therefore, the first goal of any religious person is to educate religious communities and their members to the seriousness of the emerging clean water problem and to enlist their participation in water conservation. We should propagate an ecological ethic, which reminds us that the world's water is not ours to use as we please. It is a gift of God's love to us. It is our obligation to return that love by protecting it with whatever responsibilities this may entail. This common purpose unites all human beings in the same way as all the waters of the world are united. In order to save a sea, we must save all the rivers and oceans. God created heaven and earth as a harmonious totality; we therefore also have to face creation as a harmonious and interdependent whole.

We must persuade our religious adherents and mobilize every citizen to practice water frugality and to cultivate actions that conserve its cleanliness and preserve its purity. We must learn to treat water as a precious gift from God. Once we reserve for water the respect and attention that are appropriate for all of God's gifts to the world, then we will honor clean water and do everything within our power to maintain its integrity and abundance. It is the responsibility of us all - both state and religious leaders, both communities and individuals - to provide engagement with as well as solutions to a sustainable water management for the future of our cities.

The Soetendorp Institute


Jacob Soetendorp Institute for Human Values
Van Wijngaerdenstraat 21
2596 TW The Hague
The Netherlands