The Bible does not describe our lives, here on earth, as a glass of water half full or half empty. Not at all. The Bible describes our lives as being lived between the waters above and the waters below.
Psalm 148 says, “Praise the Lord … praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens. Those are the waters above. And “Praise the Lord, you sea monsters and all deeps.” Those are the waters below.
And for the ancient Hebrew and most other ancients, the land we walk on—the lakes and rivers we boat on—ancients believed that the earth sits like an all-beef patty right between the waters above, and the waters below.
The Psalmist adds one fascinating bit of information to his, or perhaps her, description of the waters above and waters below. “He fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.” The Psalmist meant that life depends on water being where water belongs.
Unfortunately, humanity is also facing big-time water problems: missing monsoons and too many powerful hurricanes; rising sea levels and melting glaciers; tinder-dry Western forests; falling water tables and invasive species in the Great Lakes; plastic bottles littering our lakes, streams, oceans, and city; pharmaceutical drug waste in drinking water; and water unfit to drink in dozens of First Nation reservations, etc. etc.
Why all these water problems? Well, I think we do not honor the limits which, as the Psalmist noted, cannot be passed, but which we pass all the time, anyway.
You see, there are two different ways of thinking about water. One is uniquely human—the water well. We construct wells to get at water whenever we want, in whatever amount we want. In ancient times, you dug a hole, lined it with brick, and dropped down a pail. You then watered your flocks, brought water home to drink, or irrigated your gardens.
But now we’ve industrialized our wells. They are deep and dark and metal and motorized and devoid of any life in their ecosystems except perhaps for E.coli. We extract so much water that cities like Beijing or Jakarta or Mexico are sinking into the deep. So much water has been extracted from under the Middle East that many commentators say that the next big war there will be a water war. Already, in places like Somalia and Yemen and Jordan there have been many riots and armed conflicts about who gets the last drops: people, crops, industry or livestock? But it doesn’t faze us, here in North America, where we think and act as if we have water to burn. Consider toilet paper. It takes 500,000,000 gallons of water to make a year’s supply for North American. It also takes 17 terawatts of energy—enough electricity to meet the annual electrical needs of three or four Torontos. Every day toilet paper production uproots 27,000 trees, trees that water tables need to stay healthy. We’ve industrialized water, commodified it, usually without being willing to sacrifice anything to conserve it.
There is another model for how we might think of water—the watering hole. You’ve seen National Geographic specials about this. Different animals, both prey and the preyed upon, come to watering holes at different times of the day, eyeing each other warily. Some fly, others walk, some buzz, and many swim. Watering holes support a rich and diverse ecosystem. When the water level falls, this animal population decreases to match the available resource. Animals take only what they need to live. Even within desserts, the watering hole or oasis is an island of plenty, of colour, of health, and life. Psalm 104 describes this ecosystem beautifully.
[God] makes springs pour water into the ravines;
[They] flows between the mountains.
They give water to all the beasts of the field;
The wild donkeys quench their thirst.
The birds of the sky nest by the waters
They sing among the branches.He waters the mountains from his upper chambers;
The land is satisfied …
Now, I get that this is a romantic scene. Given the huge population of the earth and the complexity of the issues involved we are going to have to make compromises between the well-version of commodified water and the watering-hole version of wildlife. But the latter is an ideal worth striving for, moving toward, even if only a step at a time. It is worth remembering, after all, that actually the earth in its entirety is a single ecosystem, one huge watering hole on which all of life depends. The thing is, like so many environmental issues, those of us who have the most wealth use up most of the environment; but we are also the least likely to deal with our consumption issues as long as we can ignore them. So, while someone in Somalia might make do with six litres of water a day—it is possible to use that little, if not healthy; and someone in Cape Town is required to use no more than 50 litres personally a day—which means one toilet flush per person per day; in Canada we use about three hundred litres per day and rarely stop to think about it. We, after all, can afford commodified water.
So, what do we do? Eat less meat? Get a bidet instead of using toilet paper? Let our lawns go wild? Recycle grey water? I don’t know, exactly. I leave it to you to explore the issue further via the internet. I leave it to you to work with the corporations you are employed by, and to you as a voter, to hold the big players more accountable.
But we absolutely need a change of mindset. Water is not an endless commodity; it is a precious gift. Our youth are showing us the way. For example, Autumn Peltier, a 13-year-old Anishinaabe girl from Wikwemikong First Nation, delivered a message to the United Nations General Assembly this past March. Before representatives and ambassadors from nearly every nation in the world, Autumn said it's time to "warrior up," stop polluting the planet and give water the same rights and protections as human beings. Autumn said, "Many people don't think water is alive or has a spirit," she told the diplomats gathered in New York City in her speech on World Water Day. "My people believe this to be true. Our water deserves to be treated as human with human rights. We need to acknowledge our waters with personhood so we can protect our waters."
And, I think, why not? Legally, we treat corporations as persons. We know that doing so is really just an elaborate legal fiction. Why not treat water with a similar amount of respect? As a person? Like Autumn suggests?
Listen, we are pushing water beyond the limits the Psalmist believed were eternal and not to be messed with. We actually don’t have the option, anymore, the luxury of imagining the water situation as one where maybe the planet’s glass is half full; or maybe the planet’s glass is half empty. Millions, billions of people are already living an international water crisis, a crisis thanks to chance and plenty and national wealth that we’ve mostly been able to ignore—unless you live on a reservation or a farm in the prairies.
But mostly ignoring the crisis is decision by indecision, and that is not good enough. However we approach our water woes, it is time for all of us to consider the matter, and then personally, and as a community, figure out how to share the glass of cold water we do have, somehow, to help slake the world’s thirst.