How corporate exploitation and virtual water are at odds with human rights and the basic teachings of Abrahamic religions
Before approaching the topic of water injustice, it is worth highlighting how deeply ingrained water is in the imagery and cosmology of Abrahamic faiths. The Qur’an, Bible and Torah clearly establish that all living things were created out of water and that it is the single most important element to plant, animal and human life. As such, water is mentioned 63 times in the Qur’an and 722 times in the Bible.
Interestingly, the oft-disputed term ‘shariah law’ once meant the law of water. It should therefore come as no surprise that some of the most important Islamic rituals centre around water. For instance, Muslims use water regularly when ritually purifying themselves for the five daily prayers. Likewise, in Rabbinical sources, water is a metaphor for the Torah itself, and in Biblical Hebrew there are 10 words for rain, eight words for cloud, and a number of different names for spring, wells, cisterns and aqueducts.
In Islam, the Prophet Mohammed’s teachings and life exemplify the highest ideals of water justice. Indeed, water conservation is deeply embedded in the sunnah, the Prophetic code of practice. For instance, Prophet Mohammed eschewed the wasting of water “even if at the banks of a flowing river’’. Additionally, he instituted the harim, a protected conservation zone that prohibited the development of areas such as riverbanks to protect watersheds. He also made it very clear that each human being has a common share in “grass, water and fire” (Musnad Vol. 2, Book 22). Since water is a matter of life and death, it can be argued within the Jewish tradition that the act of providing clean water for everyone fulfils Pikuach Nefesh, a principle that emphasises saving human lives above all else.
The current global status quo of inequality regarding access to water violates the basic human rights to water, food – and ultimately, life. Not only are these rights enshrined in multiple religious scriptures, but they are outlined in UN international law. One of the biggest forms of water injustice is the monopoly of water sources by multinational bottled water corporations such as Nestle. Water is a matter of life and death and, therefore, should not be in the hands of organisations whose sole purpose is profit instead of the public good. Indeed, the Nestle CEO asserted that water is not a human right, but just another foodstuff with a commercial value attached.
Across developing nations such as Ethiopia, Pakistan and South Africa, Nestle has seemingly unlimited access to fresh water supplies, leaving millions of people who cannot pay high prices in thirst and squalor. The fact that over 1 billion people worldwide drink from water sources contaminated with faeces is perhaps of little concern to money-driven corporations. As well as reducing water for municipal water supplies, Nestle have paid very little in return for their rapacious extraction of water. It is estimated that in many places Nestlé pays just $3.71 for every million litres of water it pumps from the local watersheds.
The virtual water trade is another important example of a worldwide status quo of global water injustice. Virtual water is the water that is embedded in all the food and clothes that we consume. Considering that our western lifestyles depend heavily on produce from developing countries, naturally they generate an enormous water footprint. Peru’s export of asparagus to developed nations including the UK is a key case in point. In recent years, 9 million cubic metres of water, the equivalent of approximately 3,600 Olympic swimming pools, were consumed in growing asparagus destined for UK markets. The large-scale diversion of water resources to grow asparagus in one of Peru’s driest regions has generated a massive water deficit that deprives local farmers and their families from meeting their basic and economic water needs. Already, two wells serving over 18,000 local people have dried up and local people are forced to consume only 10 litres of water per person per day, much lower than the recommended 50 litres by the World Health Organisation.
As people of all faiths and none, we cannot tolerate a pernicious state of affairs where entire areas of developing countries are effectively vegetation colonies for richer countries at the expense of local people. Such systematic water failures have also endangered the food security of billions of the poorest people worldwide. It is not surprising that most of the 3 billion people expected to be born by 2050 will inherit countries crippled by water shortages. The situation will only worsen as global warming begins to have a catastrophic impact on the African continent where 80 to 90 per cent of all families in rural settings rely on water to meet their basic food needs. Amid this unfolding disaster, we are increasingly becoming accustomed to droughts as the global norm; currently 36 million people are facing hunger as the worst drought in decades persists across eastern and southern Africa.
As a Muslim, I feel obliged to combat this increasing ‘comm-eau-dification’ as it endangers the Haq al Shafa, an inalienable human right within Islamic law to access affordable, safe, clean water to quench one’s thirst. Considering that religious scriptures sanctify saving lives above all, it has never been more important for the Abrahamic faiths to join the conversation and movement to tackle the scourge of water injustice. Given how accelerating climate change is affecting diminishing water supplies, the moment must be now.
Photo Credit (Original): MADE
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