By the Books: Christiana Z. Peppard's Just Water. Part 1

Part 1 │ Part 2Part 3

I was delighed to hear of the new book by Dr. Christiana Z. Peppard, Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis. Given my professional work in a regulatory agency for statewide water resources, I immediately ordered the book and asked Dr. Peppard for an interview, which she graciously agreed to.

What follows is the first of an informative and thought-provoking three-part interview about the book and the many issues involved with clean water. The remainder of the interview will be posted over the next two days.

First, a little about the author of Just Water.

Dr. Peppard is an Assistant Professor of Theology, Science, and Ethics at Fordham University, where she is also affiliated faculty in American Studies and Environmental Policy. She received her B.A. in Human Biology from Stanford University, M.A. in Ethics from Yale Divinity School, and Ph.D. in Religious Ethics from Yale University.

Dr. Peppard and daughter.

Prof. Peppard is a native of the U.S. West (born in California’s Central Valley and raised in Colorado) who now lives in New York City with her spouse and six-year-old daughter.
She can be found thinking on science, theology, ethics, and of course water on Twitter (@profpeppard). Her website contains a full biography, information on current activities, and helpful educational resources.

Catholic Ecology: Given that many areas of the globe want for adequate supplies of clean water, what driving forces—globally and/or regionally—most often contribute to these shortages and how are new realities, like climate change or economic instability or new technologies, making bad situations worse?

Dr. Peppard: Fresh water exists at a complicated nexus of hydrology, geography, social and economic patterns, and political realities. While the 21st century is aptly described as a century of fresh water scarcity, it’s most accurate to speak about water crises in the plural than as a singular, uniform phenomenon.

Still, in general, some dynamics hold true. Fresh water scarcity is the result of increased demand for fresh water (for agricultural, industrial, and domestic uses) coupled with unsustainable rates of extraction and consumption of fresh water, especially from nonrenewable groundwater sources such as deep aquifers. These dynamics emerged decisively in the 20th century with the rise of large-scale hydraulic technologies—dams, diversion canals and irrigation, and powerful groundwater pumps.

Where is that water going? Most people can intuit that industrialized nations tend to divert and consume more water per capita than industrializing nations. What many people don’t know is that agriculture is the biggest consumptive use of fresh water worldwide. (We need water to grow crops, and water helps to turn seeds into suppers!) Unfortunately, industrial-style agriculture is not sustainable from a water-use perspective: must agricultural production in the past century has come from tapping into deep, finite groundwater sources. Tapping this water is like mining a valuable resource, because once it’s consumed, the sources do not replenish on any humanly meaningful timescale. Some cities like Beijing and Mexico City, not to mention parts of California’s Central Valley, are quite literally sinking as the groundwater beneath them disappears due to consumptive uses (including agriculture and fossil fuel extraction). The depletion of the Ogalalla Aquifer in the middle of the U.S. or the Edwards Aquifer in Texas offer still more examples. Chapter 5, “The Agriculture/Water Nexus,” explores these topics and their implications in great detail.

But isn’t water renewable? Yes, and no—it depends. Not all uses of water are equally renewable. The key distinction is between “consumptive” and “nonconsumptive” uses. In “consumptive use,” once you withdraw and use the water, you lose it; it doesn’t return to the watershed in any meaningful way. “Non-consumptive” uses allow for most of the water to be returned to the watershed or ecosystem. (Many uses are some combination of both.)

In light of that, real movement on “solving” global water crises will require dedicated attention to where regions get their water; what kind of water it is; and whether the uses to which it is put allow for most of the water to re-enter the watershed. These are systemic and structural, social issues, not just hydrological riddles of problems that can be solved by taking shorter showers.

Still, it’s good to take shorter showers: individuals’ water-use habits matter. Everyone should cultivate water virtue. But domestic uses tend to be non-consumptive and account for less than 10% of global water withdrawals. Thus, while individual conservation can make a difference in maintaining water supply, it is not the answer to world water crises. For that, we need to think about what kinds of water we’re using for what kinds of purposes, on what scale, in what locations, and with what kinds of short- and long-term effects.

What’s the upshot? Fresh water is complex. It isn’t easy, and it isn’t obvious, but it’s everyone’s obligation to think better about fresh water for the short- and long-term good of societies and ecosystems. It’s not just about individuals: It’s about corporations, governments, communities, and societies striving towards a common good for this most vital of resources.

Catholic Ecology: How does climate change fit into this discussion?

Dr. Peppard: Climate change is another powerful variable. The head of UN-Water has said that “climate change is all about water,” and conservation biologist Travis Huxman (former director of Biosphere II) opines that “water is the hammer with which climate change will hit the earth.” It’s a big deal, and it gets an entire chapter in Just Water (Chapter 7, “Climate Change and Water in the Anthropocene”).

Here’s the basic maxim for water and climate change: wet places will get wetter, and dry places will get drier. The implications for arid regions, especially those that rely on water-intensive agriculture for sustentance and/or economic growth—are dire. In Chapter 7 I draw out six aspects of the climate-water nexus that are absolutely crucial for considering hydrological and social wellbeing in this century—including water conflict, environmental refugees, drought and desertification, energy production, and more.

Catholic Ecology: To what extent can we rely on innovation and technology to help tackle such realities?

Dr. Peppard: That’s an important question. Clearly, technology will be part of long-term solutions to fresh water scarcity. (Already, in light of the extreme drought in California, people are wondering how quickly desalination plants can come on-line.) But note that technology will only be part of the solution. Why is this? For one thing, “technology” is a vast term. What kind of technologies are we talking about, on what kind of scale, and where? For another, technology is only as good as the context within which it is implemented, and the goals towards which it is oriented.

Take desalination. It presents some economic and environmental challenges in the short-term, but those will be overcome when demand is acute enough, and it’s already in use in particularly arid regions around the world. But desalination is not a panacea: It is only as good as the contexts in which it is deployed and the goals towards which it is oriented. The desalination plant at Yuma (in Arizona) is certainly not an icon of success. We cannot, must not, regard technology as salvation.

Technology can help societies to achieve certain objectives, but it does not solve problems of distribution, access, and valuation on its own.

We human beings, endowed with the capacity for rational thought and ethical reflection, have to figure out how to value water in ways that redound to the common good of individuals, communities, and ecosystems in the short and long term. To suggest that technology will solve environmental problems is to avoid our very human responsibility to think ethically and critically about water. So, by all means: innovate, incubate, experiment, and work towards ever better water technologies. But we must remember that while technology is an invaluable aid, it won’t do the hard conceptual work for us.

Catholic Ecology: In your book you discuss how water is a justice issue—especially when gender is considered. Can you tell us a little about that?

Dr. Peppard: From an ethical perspective, justice and access to clean, fresh water are huge issues that people are only beginning to register on a global scale.

The fact is that, globally, the people who generally bear the brunt of fresh water scarcity are people living in situations of poverty and/or subsistence existence. They lack water through no fault of their own, but rather as a result of the location of their birth. This is not something that any of us chooses, but it is something that nonetheless shapes lives and circumscribes the possibilities available to individuals and societies. Especially in areas with insufficient water supply, people’s lives are determined by fresh water’s absence in highly gendered ways.

Women and children are usually tasked with procuring water for domestic uses. When the wells run dry or when streams or other sources are polluted, the task can be time-consuming and physically grueling. The gendered aspect of water procurement—and the fact that women bear many of the burdens associated with water scarcity—is a consistent theme throughout my book, and is the focus of Chapter. 9, “Women, Wells, and Living Water.”

Women do not carry water because they choose to do so, in the sense of ultimate freedom. Women are responsible for water because they are born as females into lower-economic-strata contexts without reliable clean water sources. So it is that women and children living in poverty bear some of the heaviest burdens of fresh water pollution and scarcity. But for so many of us in the U.S. and Europe, this is an “out of sight, out of mind” reality.

How do we, as U.S. citizens sitting atop the global economic structure, grapple with that iniquity? In other words: What does it matter, after all, that people in some regions of the world feel pressure due to water scarcity, while others don’t? It’s destabilizing to think that my access to fresh water is the exception, not the norm, worldwide—just because I happened to be born in a particular place and time, to a middle-class family with a house and reliable municipal infrastructure. And it’s daunting to think about the scale of the problem. But that is no reason to avoid the issue, and my book is one attempt to articulate what’s going on, what’s at stake, and what people can do to improve the situation.

Catholic Ecology: You refer to water as a “Right-to-Life Issue.” What does that mean exactly?

Dr. Peppard: People with economic resources will almost always be able to obtain the clean, fresh water necessary for existence. (As Mark Twain reportedly aphorized, “water flows upwards towards wealth.”) But because fresh water is a fundamental requirement for the continuation of life, and because there’s no substitute for it, we have to think about it differently than other kinds of economic goods. This is why the language of human rights has been applied to water in recent years. Water justice advocates express that access to clean, fresh water is a human right, regardless of ability to pay. This is an important ethical intuition and argument.

Yet as a scarce resource, fresh water is also an increasingly valuable commodity on the global market. Corporations have huge financial interests (and major profit margins) in water privatization schemes and sales of water. I deal with these topics in Chapter 3 of Just Water (“Fresh Water: Human Right or Economic Commodity?”), where I also give a history of bottled water!

So what is the value of water? It’s not merely economic, for one thing. Here, I think it’s remarkable—profound and noteworthy, in fact—that the Catholic Church has gone on record to exhort global leaders, citizens, and Catholics to recognize that “without water, there is no life.” The Church insists that fresh water is a “fundamental human right,” indeed, even “a right-to-life issue” (!) and that, as a result, it must not be considered only as a commodity. Its value transcends market value. This is radical, powerful rhetoric. What would the world look like if we took these exhortations to heart? (Chapter 4, “A Right-to-Life Issue for the Twenty-First Century,” contextualizes and elaborates on these claims.)

Note: Our interview with Just Water author Dr. Christiana Peppard will continue Monday.

If you like Catholic Ecology,
you’ll love…

A Printer's Choice

The sci-fi novel with a Catholic twist.

A Printer's Choice

Learn more

About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.