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March 9, 2006 Joan Chittister: From Where I Stand
Vol. 3, No. 36

  Water, water everywhere … and not a drop to drink
"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Joan Chittister is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer on topics of justice, peace, human rights, women's issues, and contemporary spirituality in the Church and in society. She presently serves as the co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a partner organization of the United Nations, facilitating a worldwide network of women peace builders, especially in the Middle East. A speech communications theorist, Sister Joan's most recent books include The Way We Were (Orbis) and Called to Question (Sheed & Ward), a First Place CPA 2005 award winner. She is founder and executive director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality in Erie.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

It’s quiet here on this Irish mountaintop overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. I get up, get a little breakfast, do the dishes, work at the computer a while, get a little lunch, do the dishes, work through the afternoon, put the turf in, light the fire, get a little supper, do the dishes. It sounds so far away from things, doesn’t it? So safe from the problems of the world.

Not quite. Think again.

“The bogs are drying up, being bled dry,” the neighbor said, meaning that Ireland’s supply of peat, thousands of years old, is slowly but surely disappearing.

Last week the mountain water that comes out of the cold tap on the sink ran brown for three days. I couldn’t wash the dishes, couldn’t make the tea. The hot water -- rain water caught in a tank up the hillside -- went dry. The wash would have to wait a while and so would the shower.

Then, I got it: This place is neither quiet nor remote from the problems of the world. On the contrary, Ireland may be one of the best clues we have of how close we are to finding ourselves victims of our own distorted sense of progress.

The important thing to understand is that this idyllic little place is not primitive or backward or underdeveloped. Ireland is one of the fastest growing economies on the globe. It is fast becoming one of the banking centers of Europe.

It is, at the same time, however, surrounded by salt water, not usable either for showers or dishes. Bog is a natural fuel that has for centuries heated Irish homes and cooked Irish food, and does to this day, heating oil and modern furnaces notwithstanding. But Ireland’s once major source of fuel is disappearing.

What’s more, Ireland’s population is small and there are few, if any, major factories gulping up either water or energy. And yet, Ireland does not have limitless supplies of either.

Here, I thought, is the tomorrow we’re all facing if we don’t do something about it today.

In the United States, for instance, we have built whole cities in the desert and nourish them with water piped in from other population centers that are also built on sand and rock, also growing rapidly, also consuming energy and water at great rates.

But why worry?

Maybe this can help explain the problem: According to an article in this week’s London Independent, Britain’s Defense Secretary John Reid predicts that in the near future wars will not be fought for oil. They will be fought for water.

And the leading cause of diminishing water supplies everywhere? Global warming.

Right. Global warming, that scientific specter of oncoming doom that the U.S. government has made a business of doubting, is now a universally recognized reality everywhere but in the United States. Headlines on the National Resources Defense Council Web site (http://www.nrdc.org/bushrecord/), which monitors the Bush administration record on Global Warming, reads like a press release from a fun house. The record cited goes all the way from “Bush administration rejects Kyoto Protocol” 03/28/01 to “Bush administration finally admits big trouble from global warming” 06/03/02 to “EPA scuttled global warming videos to avoid White House wrath” 07/01/05 to “Bush admits humans cause global warming but rebuffs action.” 07/06/05.

I suppose you can call a succession of gradually decreasing rejections like that “progress.” After all, if you start out talking to a stone wall and end up in any kind of conversation at all about a commonly acknowledged topic, that’s an improvement. But whether or not it will be seen so positively in the west of Ireland or India, in Turkey or Botswana -- places where water is scarce, energy resources are missing and global warming is making things worse every day -- is anybody’s guess.

In the meantime, England is hosting a “crisis Downing Street summit,” the Independent reports, to address what Tony Blair calls “the major long-term threat facing our planet.” Most of all, he admits being alarmed at “the political consequences of failing to deal with the specter of global warming.”

Translation: Water wars, far more serious than wars for oil because of their universal implications, are on the way tomorrow if we don’t do something about global warming today. Reid predicts that we can expect violent confrontation over water in the next 20 to 30 years. In fact, he ranks climate changes due to global warming alongside international terrorism, demographic changes and global energy demands as the major threats facing the world in future decades.

But we haggle and duck the subject. Do we doubt the existence of global warming because we’re smarter? Hardly, given the fact that our reports on the effects of global warming are in stark contrast to the findings of scientific bodies around the world. No, we doubt it because if we face it, we’ll have to do something about it. Cut back on our oil usage. Invest in electric cars. Meter our water. Change our technologies. Curb our usage. Stop our polluting.

How do you get campaign funds from the big oil companies if you do something like that? How do you get elected if you do something like that? How do you keep under-funding peacetime research and development programs in order to cut taxes, if you admit that the land of milk and honey is not only running out of honey but whatever honey there was, was destroyed as well?

More than 300 million people in Africa live without safe water, Reid says, a situation that will only get worse thanks to the climate changes heralded by global warming.

The recommended water requirement per person per day is 50 liters and some countries, Mozambique, for instance, use less than 10 liters per person. The West, meanwhile, goes its merry way. Every English citizen uses on average 200 liters of water a day, every US citizen, 500 liters of water a day. People in the West, according to the Independent, use eight liters of water just to brush their teeth and 100-200 liters to take a shower.

From where I stand, the message is in the brown water in my Irish sink and the ubiquitous bottle of “pure” commercial water now carried everywhere in the United States by the wealthy healthy.

By the way, this morning’s headlines also read: “Iran threatens U.S. with ‘harm and pain’ ” and “North Korea reportedly test-fires two missiles.” If you think the two sets of headlines -- one on U.S. government responses to the problem of global warming and the other on the emerging nuclearization of the world -- are unrelated, think again. Otherwise, time for thinking about our responsibilities as citizens of the world may well be running out -- and also drying up.

Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister, c/o NCR web coordinator at the address below.
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