Water Crises

February 25th, 2014

A Passing Thought

As the cup fills with my morning coffee, I think to myself, “I should change the water filter on the machine. It’s been several months.” It’s a passing thought. I’m not often worried about the quality of our water, which comes from a well. Nor am I generally concerned about having water. The well has never run dry, even during that long drought a few summers ago.

However, in the Kanawha River valley of West Virginia, home to 300,000 residents and the state capital of Charleston, they may never take water for granted again. A January chemical spill into the Elk River poisoned the water supply there and led to weeks of insecurity about the safety of the water. Questions still remain, though authorities have declared the water safe to use again.

The West Virginia water crisis highlighted the precarious state of water quality and access in the contemporary world. Water insecurity is the natural state for 800 million people worldwide who do not have safe, clean water to drink. The United Nations estimates that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will live in areas of absolute water scarcity. What is the future for water security in a changing world, and how can we be part of securing access to safe water for all people?

Indescribable Devastation

It began on January 9, 2014, with a report from Freedom Industries to West Virginia officials that chemicals had been leaking from their facility into the Elk River, which supplies water to the city of Charleston and outlying regions. The chemical, 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM), is used in the coal production process, one of the state’s major industries. Approved for use in 1976 under the Toxic Substances Control Act, no independent labs have tested the effects of MCHM, according to an article in The Huffington Post. But Governor Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency, and hundreds of thousands of West Virginia residents were told not to use the water for anything more than flushing toilets. The state warned residents that exposure to the chemical could lead to “severe burning in throat, severe eye irritation, non-stop vomiting, trouble breathing or severe skin irritation such as skin blistering.”

Over the next ten days, residents scrambled to find bottled water. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) came in to help get water to people in need. In one instance, Walmart asked local police to protect a water delivery because of the potential for chaos. The Environment News Service reported Charleston mayor Danny Jones saying, “There is no answer as to when the citizens of this valley and all these nine counties can [expect] this nightmare to end. And it has devastated this area in a way which is indescribable. Everything is closing.” One restaurant owner, Harish Anada, who had been forced to lay off employees and throw away all of her food, told The Huffington Post, “We were closed for five days. When we re-opened we had to start all over. We had to hire contractors to change and flush our filters. And now we have to buy water too. . . . We have more water in our refrigerators now than we have food.”

Meanwhile, revelations about additional chemical leaks from Freedom Industries continued, and the company filed for bankruptcy protection. At a February 5 press conference, Governor Tomblin, flanked by state and federal officials, said that he had been drinking the water again since a January 18 “all clear” statement from the West Virginia American Water Company, which controls the water delivery pipes. But schools that had reopened closed again that day after reports that the licorice smell characteristic of MCHM was still present in the water.

Trusting the Water Again

One lingering casualty of the crisis was trust—trust in the water supply, in corporations, and in federal and state agencies that oversee water safety. On February 8, 100 walkers took to the streets of Charleston in a march for clean water. The object of their concern was West Virginia American Water, which they felt had not accepted responsibility for the cost of the crisis on residents who had to spend heavily on bottled water. As reported by television station WSAZ, Reverend Melvin Hoover said, “It’s our water. . . . We need to hold people accountable, and we’re going to do that.”

Business owners were among those wondering if bottled water would become the new norm. Jason Baldwin, who runs the Moxxee Coffee Shop, told The Huffington Post, “No one will be comfortable with our water going forward for drinking purposes.” Kellie Raines, a local resident, told The Huntington News, “I don’t know what will make me trust the water again.”

The state’s most senior US senator, Jay Rockefeller, expressed dismay at the power of the big corporations in state politics. The senator told ABC News that during his time as governor, he saw how that influence led to weak regulatory oversight. “They dominate in West Virginia’s life. Governors get elected—and I was a governor once—and they appoint people to regulatory jobs who helped them in campaigns. What does that tell you?” Rockefeller expressed dismay over news that the containers that leaked the chemicals in January had not been inspected since 1991.

A Future of Global Water Insecurity

While West Virginia’s water worries seem temporary, a more serious global crisis looms. The world’s population is growing, and in the next 20 years water demand will outstrip “current sustainable water supplies” by 40 percent, according to predictions in a new US Intelligence Community Assessment. While water is one of the most prevalent resources on earth, only 2.5 percent of the global supply is found outside the oceans. As demands for that fresh water grow with the population, water scarcity could contribute to economic and political instability.

A number of factors are contributing to water supply stresses beyond simple demographics. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Stewart M. Patrick points to declining water supplies worldwide as underwater aquifers are used up and glaciers continue their steady retreat around the globe. Patrick also notes a changing diet preference around the world as developing countries add more meat to their diet, meaning a need for more water for livestock and grain to feed those animals. Poor water management also contributes to the problem.

Then there is the cost. Arid areas around the developed world have been transformed through reservoirs and dams, but the cost of even maintaining these structures is dramatic. A 2010 report by researchers in the journal Nature estimated that in developed countries alone, along with Brazil, Russia, India and China, “$800bn per year will be required by 2015 to cover investments in water infrastructure, a target likely to go unmet.” In the developing world, that cost seems fantastical.

People of the Water

Christians are sometimes called “people of the water,” since the waters of baptism are among our central symbols. Jesus calmed the waters, turned water into wine, and promised living water; and at his death water flowed with blood from his side. Paul talked about how immersion into baptismal water was symbolic of our immersion into Christ’s death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-4).

So what do Christians have to say about troubled waters? If in water we find life and a sacramental way to experience God’s grace, how can we assure that water is available to all? Christians are building sanitation systems in areas where water-borne illnesses are prevalent through organizations like the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). Liberian United Methodists are digging wells and advocating for access to clean water in their country through a mission titled Water for Life. And everywhere there are challenges to improve water safety and access.

A faith formed by the sacraments of baptism and Communion invites us to see the elements of the world through a different lens. The bread and cup of the Communion table become a template overlaid on every table where we gather to eat, asking us to remember Christ’s continuing presence. And with baptismal eyes, even the water flowing through the filter to make my morning coffee becomes a sign of God’s intent to bless the earth and all its creatures. Perhaps I’ll look deeper into my coffee cup with gratitude. Perhaps I’ll pray for guidance on how we can be in solidarity with the 1.2 billion people who live in areas of water scarcity. Perhaps I’ll receive this blessing and seek to be a blessing.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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