By the Books: Christiana Z. Peppard's Just Water. Part 2

Part 1 │ Part 2 Part 3

On the Feast of St. Scholastica, we continue our interview with Dr. Christiana Z. Peppard, Assistant Professor of Theology, Science, and Ethics at Fordham University, about her new book Just Water.

Part 1 of the interview can be found here. The last installation will be posted tomorrow—the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.

Catholic Ecology: Shortages of clean water are often portrayed as realities only in developing countries. Does your book look at water supply and source protection issues in places like the United States or Europe?

Dr. Peppard: Yes! While people living in subsistence situations feel the effects of water scarcity first, it is also the case that water sources are being polluted and tapped unsustainably in parts of the world where we take water for granted. Usually, in the U.S., we are not aware of our water sources. But every now and then, events like the West Virginia chemical spill present terrifying evidence of just how vital and susceptible fresh water is—not just for people in developing nations, but for everyone, worldwide.

Ignorance of fresh water sources has been a marker of luxury: many people in the U.S. and Europe know little about our watersheds and water/sanitation infrastructure—since tap water is available 24 hours per day, seven days per week. However, in some (mostly arid, Western) regions of the U.S., residents are more familiar with water scarcity and source protection, precisely because water scarcity and disputes have been going on longer there. I recommend William DeBuys’ book, A Great Aridness (Oxford University Press, 2010), for a fuller treatment of water in the contemporary and future west.

Catholic Ecology: Fossil fuel extraction technologies, especially fracking, are often major water users. Given all the demands on water, is this a wise use of water, or a waste?

Photo by Daniel Foster

Dr. Peppard: A major issue facing industrialized nations is water use by the energy sector. Many fossil fuel-extraction technologies are extremely water-intensive. Take hydraulic fracturing, that much-hyped and much-criticized technology for extracting shale oil or natural gas. (Chapter 8, “Water from Rock,” grapples with fracking in great detail.)

From a water use perspective, each well drilled for hydraulic fracturing consumes Olympic-sized swimming pools-worth of water in order to force shale oil and natural gas out of pockets of rock and sediment. The water that comes out (“flowback” and “produced water”) is heavily contaminated with chemicals (used to loosen the sediments, thereby releasing the gas). Flowback and produced water cannot be reclaimed.

Is water-intensive fossil fuel extraction a good use of finite, scarce water supply? Western advocates argue, emphatically, no—as a consumptive use (because it produces contaminated water) the water can’t re-enter the watershed or ecosystem. Communities across the world are worried about potential pollution from fracking wells. Currently there is a ridiculous lack of information about what kinds of chemicals are in those fracking solutions and what the toxicological, public health, and environmental consequences may be. The situation is one of contrived ignorance, because the U.S. federal government currently protects fracking solutions as “trade secrets.” This is ridiculous and has to change, as I argue in Chapter 8.

But it’s not just tree-hugging environmentalists who are concerned about fracking—far from it. Several European nations have banned fracking outright due to uncertainty about its effects on water supply. And in Germany, the centuries-old beer-brewers’ association issued a formal complaint against fracking!—on the grounds that potential contamination of groundwater sources could imperil their 500-year-old purity codes for beer-brewing. This is a real concern for a country that sees massive annual revenues from Oktoberfest and beer tourism!

Catholic Ecology: Your work bridges a number of disciplines, such as science, theology, and environmental policy. Have you seen examples of dialogue between faith and reason in how local, national, or international governments develop or implement sound water use policies? Similarly, where have people of faith—especially the Catholic Church—been most helpful in issues of water supply and source protection?

Dr. Peppard: Such partnerships will be among the most interesting aspects of water management and ethics in the coming century.

On a global level, since 2003 the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace has issued a very straightforward, clear letter to the triennial World Water Forum. These letters (which I discuss in greater detail in Chapter 4) portray water as a gift from God, a human right, and a right-to-life issue. And, in keeping with decades of Catholic social teaching, they express concern about the commodification of fresh water and identify access to clean, fresh water and sanitation as key factors in integral development.

These teachings are powerful and, hopefully, can inform policymakers’ awareness of ethical aspects of fresh water supply and access. It’s a pretty basic and powerful insight: human flourishing is not best measured by economic indicators alone.

One of the most interesting and hope-giving actors in international, transboundary water management is Prof. Aaron Wolf, a professor and chair of the Department of Geosciences at Oregon State University. Dr. Wolf’s work in conflict management incorporates multiple stakeholders and complex (beyond economic) value-paradigms for water, publishing peer-reviewed articles at the intersection of water conflict and spirituality in the Journal of Water Policy.

Friends of the Earth Middle East is another exemplar. This regional non-profit organization is spearheading a Jordan River rehabilitation and cooperation project that involves multiple stakeholders, including religious communities from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam within the geographic area of the Jordan River (encompassed by Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan. They’ve recently released a stupendous toolkit (of articles and other resources) for religious congregations, on the topic of the Jordan River. I recommend it highly

Chapter 6 of Just Water, “The Jordan River,” depicts some of these projects, while parsing an odd dilemma. How is it possible that the symbolically powerful Jordan River can exist in such a paltry, degraded hydrological state? I argue that this is a topic—and a place!—where religious people and congregations, as well as institutional entities like the Catholic Church, have a substantial role to play in environmental rehabilitation and protection. Shouldn’t it be significant for people of Christian faith that the Jordan—that is, the river in which Jesus was baptized, and his ministry began!—is dammed, diverted, and flows only as pea-green sludge in several places?

This is an environmental problem. It is an ethical problem. I think it’s also a religious and theological problem.

A final way that we are seeing interactions between theology and water policy is through religious communities’ resistance to invasive technologies and support of environmentally sustainable practices. For example, several orders of nuns in the United States and elsewhere, such as the Sisters of Bon Secours, have made water a central charism in their theological and ethical work. Likewise, the National Catholic Rural Life Conference continues to do stupendous work in thinking through the important relationships between Catholic faith and the health of land and water.

Various dioceses and bishops’ conferences in the U.S. and worldwide have begun to issue occasional letters or formal documents that emphasize how water is a gift that is central to human and ecosystemic existence. Examples include documents by the Appalachian Bishops as well as Bishops from the Philippines, as well as the Columbia River Pastoral letter (written by the Bishops of the northwestern part of the U.S. and Canada about matters of shared concern on the Columbia River). In late summer 2013, several religious orders in Kentucky—including the Trappists of Gethsemani—opposed the possibility of a natural gas transportation pipeline that would run through their properties.

Catholic Ecology: At work, I often refer to the sound planning, building, and maintenance of water infrastructure as “Civilization 101.” Given the growing demands on governments, how can people with a background in science or faith (or both) stress to decision makers the importance of clean water as a fundamental need for the common good? What guiding principles do you suggest in your book?

Dr. Peppard: I quite agree. Without water, there is no possibility of civilization! The guiding principles of my book that could be infused into “Civilization 101” can be summed up as follows:

  • Fresh water is sui generis (unique, non-substitutable) and sine qua non (a baseline for all kinds of existence, from individuals to societies to ecosystems and economies).

  • These features are universally true but manifest differently in various places. Context matters: Seattle is not the Sahara. So there is no one-size-fits-all solution to fresh water scarcity.

  • Technology is an important tool but not a panacea. It must be deployed within a long-term ethical, economic, and policy framework that puts human and ecosystem flourishing at the center of value.

  • People living in poverty, especially women and children, deserve special attention because they are the first to suffer when water systems fail or water becomes scarce.

  • Corporations must be accountable for safety and must prove that their chemicals and processes are not toxic to humans or other forms of downstream life. This is, in other words, the precautionary principle. Moreover, any potential downstream costs must be internalized, despite the economic temptation to externalize costs. (The case of West Virginia is a good example of the flaws of our current approach, which seems to privilege the trade secrets and income of a corporation above the downstream health and water access of residents.)

  • For all of these insights, there is robust resonance with principles of Catholic Social Teaching (chapter 4, “A Right-to-Life-Issue for the Twenty-First Century”), which I deploy in a central way in the book. It will come as a surprise to most North American Catholics that in terms of thinking about the ethics of fresh water, the Catholic Church is way ahead of most municipalities in the U.S.! So, I suggest in the book that there can be a fruitful dialogue between precepts of the tradition and contemporary water realities. Do I think that the Catholic Church has all the answers? No. It’s not a water management entity! But I do think that the principles resonate with some deep concerns about fresh water scarcity and ethics—especially questions of value and human life—in the 21st century. There is wisdom here, and we need to pay attention to it, because water is and will continue to be a fundamental right-to-life issue—indeed, the right-to-life issue par excellence for global humanity.

Catholic Ecology: Our interview with Just Water author Dr. Christiana Peppard will conclude tomorrow. Part 1 can be found here.

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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.