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Dying for water – Fr. Seán McDonagh

30 November, 1999

Fr. Seán McDonagh, who has written extensively on theology and the environment, turns his attention in this book to the significance, from both an ecological and a theological point of view, of the world’s water resources. He sees preserving and protecting fresh water around the world as part of our Christian responsibility to care for God’s earth.

109pp, Veritas Publications, 2003. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie.

The water of life
Water and health, water and peace
Water in Ireland, Britain and Australia
Water and agriculture, industry and tourism
Destruction of the oceans
Water and the Christian churches


Dying for Water details the causes and consequences of an environmental problem which looks set to become a major crisis in the twenty-first century. Human activity is polluting water in rivers, lakes and oceans around the world. In Ireland, severe agricultural pollution has led to a dramatic deterioration in water quality during the past forty years. Agriculture, industry and tourism all place huge pressure on water supplies worldwide.

Oceans are being over-fished and polluted at an unprecedented rate, so that deep water eco-systems are destroyed even before we discover their existence. However, the shortage of clean water is not merely an environmental issue. Recent conflicts over access to water between Israel and Palestine, and between India and Bangladesh, for example, suggest that water promises to be to the twenty-first century what oil was to the twentieth. Dying for Water concludes with an exploration of the role of water in the Bible and the Christian Churches.

This short book looks at the importance of water for all the creatures on planet earth. However, it also details how humans have abused fresh water and the oceans for the past sixty years. Enormous damage has been done and the challenges now facing this generation are awesome. Water-borne diseases are responsible for 80 per cent of all illnessess and deaths in Third World countries. At present, one third of the world’s 6.4 billion people live in water-stressed areas. Unless we introduce major changes, that figure will rise to two-thirds of the population by the year 2032.

This book also attempts to make solid connections between this contemporary ecological crisis and the Christian faith. Strange as it may seem, links between ecology and faith have only been forged in recent years.

I entered the seminary at St Columban’s, Dalgan Park, Navan in 1962. The 1960s was a very exciting time for the Catholic Church as the new thinking emanating from the Second Vatican Council began to filter into seminaries and the wider Church community. It seemed that the Catholic Church, after distancing itself for centuries from the modern world, now wished to enter into dialogue with it. Renewed emphasis on the scriptures, the Church as the People of God, ecumenism, social justice, global poverty and human rights were high on the Church’s agenda. Unfortunately, however, Vatican II did not appear to be aware that the global environment was deteriorating, despite the fact that Rachel Carson’s pioneering book Silent Spring had been published in April 1962, six months before the Council began.

I learned nothing about the links between ecology and religion during my seven years in the seminary, despite studying the bible, the incarnation and the sacraments during that time. Sad to report that this is still the situation in many seminaries and departments of theology in universities.

My education in ecology began in the mid-1970s. I had finished a degree in anthropology in the US and was teaching anthropology and linguistics at the Mindanao State University in Mindanao, Philippines. I was asked to study a tribal people called the T’boli who lived in the rainforest of South Cotabato on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines. There I saw at first hand the appalling damage that the timber logging craze of the previous two decades had wreaked on the forest, rivers, lakes and even on the coral reefs. The health of the people was also being affected as the destruction of the forest meant the loss of medicinal plants and many food sources.

Once the trees were cleared and the area burned, the exposed topsoil began to silt up rivers and beaches, especially after heavy monsoon rains. Watching the rivers in raging floods sweeping the soils down to the sea was like watching blood haemorrhage from a body.

But was the ecological crisis confined to tropical areas like the Philippines as some commentators maintained at the time? I spent many nights in the T’boli hills reading environmental literature in an attempt to inform myself about these complex issues. I learned that tropical deforestation, global warming, acid rain, the extinction of species, depletion of the ozone layer, soil erosion and the chemical pollution of land and water were global problems. As I read this catalogue of greed, plunder and devastation I felt something of what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins captured so vividly in his poem ‘Binsey Poplars’, written after revisiting a favourite river bank where the trees had been chopped down:

O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew –
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being so slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hue and delve;
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been…

Given the magnitude of the destruction that was taking place, and the fact that it will impoverish each succeeding generation of humans, I was amazed to find that the Catholic Church, either in the Philippines or globally, had nothing to say on the ecological crisis. It was all the more difficult to understand because the Catholic Church had a credible record on human rights abuses and social justice issues, and nature played a central role in Catholic sacramental theology.

I resolved that my work as a missionary would have a strong environmental thrust. Like many other missionaries, I was involved in education both at the primary and secondary level. I tried to include environmental studies in the curriculum with special emphasis on local issues like deforestation. Each school developed its organic garden and a compost pit. Parents were encouraged to revive their backyard gardens and cultivate them in an organic way. This meant that we had to find agricultural advisors who were trained in organic methods or were willing to learn them. Most existing graduates in agriculture were hooked on conventional, petrochemical, intensive agriculture.

Our primary health care programmes were very focused on increasing food production to boost nutrition and ensuring that the water sources were protected against contamination by animal or human waste. The high levels of infant mortality in the T’boli hills in the late 1970s was due to malnutrition and water-borne diseases like gastro-enteritis.

Creation figured very much in our religious programmes and liturgies. This was not difficult as the T’boli were very sensitive to the presence of ‘spirits’ in the world of nature. We tried to present the gospel of Christ as good news for humans and all creation. We incorporated planting and harvesting rituals into our ceremonies. The various creation symbols in the Easter vigil liturgy – water, light and darkness, fire and sexuality – allowed for all kinds of creativity in music, symbol and dance.

On the wider front I began to talk and write about the ecological crisis that I saw unfolding in Mindanao and right around the world, including Ireland. In the early 1980s I sent a manuscript of my first book To Care For the Earth to almost twenty different publishers in Ireland, Britain and the United States. All responded with a polite refusal saying that they did not feel there was a market for ecological theology. In fact, for most of the publishers, including those who were publishing radical liberation theology, these two worlds, like oil and water, did not mix. Finally, in 1984, a British publisher agreed to publish the book if market research convinced them that it would sell.

After the publication of To Care For the Earth I began to lobby Filipino bishops to publish a pastoral letter on the plight of the Philippine environment. The Episcopal Conference gave the green light and eventually What is Happening to our Beautiful Land? saw the light of day in February 1988. This was the first pastoral letter from any Bishops’ Conference devoted exclusively to environmental problems. I was honoured to have played a part in the drafting.

Slowly the environment has begun to appear on the radar screen of Catholic teaching. The first papal document devoted exclusively to ecology appeared on 1 January 1990. It was entitled Peace with God the Creator, Peace with all Creation. In #15 the Pope stated that: ‘Christians, in particular, know that their responsibility within creation and their duty towards nature and the Creator are an essential part of their faith. As a result, they are conscious of a vast field of ecumenical and inter-religious cooperation opening before them.’

More recently the Pope has become even more alarmed. On 17 January 2002, in an address on the destructive interaction between humans and the rest of creation, he said:
However, if one looks at the regions of our planet, one realizes immediately that humanity has disappointed the divine expectation. Above all, in our time, man has unhesitatingly devastated wooded plains and valleys, polluted the waters, deformed the earth’s habitat, made the air unbreathable, upset the hydrogeological and atmospheric systems, blighted green spaces, implemented uncontrolled forms of industrialization, humiliating – to use an image of Dante Alighieri (Paradiso XXII, 151) – the earth, that flower-bed that is our dwelling.

It is necessary, therefore, to stimulate and sustain the ‘ecological conversion’, which over these last decades has made humanity more sensitive when facing the catastrophe toward which it was moving. Man is no longer ‘minister’ of the Creator. However, as an autonomous despot, he is beginning to understand that he must finally stop before the abyss.’

By any standard this is extraordinary language from a pope. He is aware that we do face a potential catastrophe and that none of the major institutions of our world – educational, economic, political, industrial, religious or media – have addressed the issue in a way that is commensurate with the seriousness of the threats facing the planet. After the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in August 2002, an editorial in the New Scientist (7 September 2002) wondered whether the countries of the world should set up a World Environment Organisation that has extensive powers to fine countries or corporations that wreck rainforests or renege on greenhouse gas commitments signed up to in the Kyoto Protocol. ‘Cynics would say that governments would never give up such powers to an international body. But look at what they gave up to the World Trade Organisation in the interests of free trade’.’ It seems that free trade and corporate profits are more important to our political leaders than the health of the planet.

Bishops’ Conferences around the world have published various documents on the environment. Some are excellent, like A New Earth – The Environmental Challenge published by the Australian Hierarchy in 2002. They also set up Catholic Earthcare Australia to advise the Bishops on environmental questions. The European Bishops’ Conference has held a number of consultations on environmental issues. The most recent, in Wroclaw, Poland, in May 2003, addressed the theme ‘Formation for Responsibility for Creation and Sustainable Development’. This body has also encouraged pastoral initiatives on ecological themes like ‘Day of Birds’, ‘Day of Trees’ and ‘Day of Bread’.

While the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference has still to produce a document on the environment, the first pastoral letter devoted exclusively to ecology, entitled The Whole of Creation is Groaning, was published by the Archbishop of Cashel and Emly, Dr Dermot Clifford, in Lent 2003. Creation theology, while very evident in the religious education programmes in schools at both the primary and secondary level, is sadly lacking at third-level.

During the past twenty years I have published five books and countless articles on ecology, justice and religion. All of these have looked at ecological and justice issues from the perspective of the gospel of Jesus. The topics covered include global warming, tropical deforestation and waste management, and how global institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation have promoted economic policies that have impoverished people and destroyed the earth.

Our religious tradition should help us to rise to these challenges. Water plays a central role in the Bible and in our Christian faith. Preserving and protecting fresh water and the oceans must be seen as part of our Christian responsibility to care for God’s earth.

I would like to thank Toner Quinn, my editor at Veritas, for his encouragement and helpful suggestions. A world of thanks also to all my colleagues here in Dalgan Park, especially Fr Oliver Kennedy and Fr Pat Connaughton. Finally, I would like to thank my sister Máire for proofreading the text.