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Water: source of life or death?

30 November, 1999

Columban Missionary Fr Seán McDonagh looks at one of the earth’s most endangered natural resources.

Human activity is polluting water in rivers, aquifers, lakes and the oceans. The situation is extremely serious and poised to get worse unless concerted action is taken at national and global levels. In mid-February 2000 a cyanide spill from a gold mine in Northern Romania entered the river Tisza, a tributary of the Danube, destroying aquatic life for hundreds of miles down stream. Pollution and lack of water is also a problem in Asia. The Indus, one of the great rivers of Asia, is heavily polluted as are many of the rivers in China.

Worldwide the demand for water is doubling every 21 years. Supply cannot keep pace with demand as populations soar and cities explode. At present the global population is 6.4 billion. This is expected to rise to 8 or 9 billion by the year 2025 and the demands for clean water will become acute.

Access to clean water is also not equitable. While rich people around the world can afford the luxury of fresh-water swimming pools, poor women in the Third World have to walk miles to fetch water for their basic family needs. Anyone who lives here knows that Ireland is blessed with a plentiful supply of rain. While the level of pollution in Ireland has not reached that of Eastern Europe there is no room for complacency. An editorial in The Irish Times (March 14, 2000) stated that “Ireland’s rivers have gone, in little more than a generation, from being almost pristine pure and clear to overblown imitations of open sewers and chemical drains”.

Until very recently humans relied mainly on streams, rivers and lakes for their water needs.. Except in particularly arid places they did not have to pump water from the ground. Now we are doing that at an alarming rate forgetting that the average recycling period for ground water is 1,400 years as opposed to only 20 days for river water.  Groundwater is now the major source of water for over 1.5 billion people in both First and Third World countries. The demands on ground water from agriculture have also increased in California and the Southern Great Plains of the United States, while in India the number of tube-wells used to draw groundwater have surged from 3,000 in 1960 to 6 million in 1990.

The chemical experiment
Unfortunately the full consequences of today’s chemical-dependent and waste-producing economies may not become apparent for another generation.  In December 1999, Dr. John Peterson of the W Alton Jones Foundation in the United States told a conference of scientists in Japan that “a hundred or more novel chemicals are swilling around in our bloodstream, chemicals which, before this century, were not found in human beings. It makes all of us, as well as our children and grandchildren, a walking experiment – one with completely unknown results”.

Some of these chemicals disrupt the endocrine system and as a consequence affect all aspects of human and other animal development from the embryo onwards.  Because the chemical and pharmaceutical industries are so central to modern economies, governments have been slow to investigate, regulate and ban these substances. Scientists and NGOs like Friends of the Earth are worried about the long-term consequence of these chemicals and have demanded that substances that are suspected to act as endocrine blockers and that accumulate in the human tissue should be banned.

All the creatures in our world emerged from a watery environment and we carry around this water with us in our bodies. Human beings are almost 70% water. If we continue to abuse and poison water then humans and all other forms of life will be adversely affected.

Destruction of the oceans
More than 97% of all the water on earth is seawater. During the UNESCO proclaimed International Year of the Ocean, in 1998, it emerged that the oceans are being over fished and polluted at an unprecedented rate. Important areas of the oceans, close to the continental shelf are contaminated with human, agricultural, industrial and radioactive waste. Much of this is toxic and carcinogenic. Because we have tended to treat the oceans as sewers, the Baltic, Mediterranean, Black, Caspian, Bering, Yellow and South China Seas have all been seriously damaged in recent decades. For example, the waters of the Black Sea, once a flourishing eco-system, are now considered to be 90 per cent dead. Each year the River Danube dumps an estimated 60,000 tons of phosphorus and 340,000 tons of inorganic nitrogen into its waters. It has little chance of being flushed clean since it takes 167 years for the water from the Danube delta to reach the Mediterranean, and much longer to reach the Atlantic.

On another front over-fishing is depleting the oceans and leaving them barren. Many people feel that the oceans are so vast and the variety of fish so abundant that there will always be vast quantities of fish in the sea. We are now learning how false those assumptions are. According to a report by the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) in 1995, over 70% of the world’s marine fish stocks are either fully-to-heavily exploited, over-exploited, or slowly recovering.  The depletion is most notable in many of the world’s most productive fishing grounds. These include the Grand Bank of Canada and New England, while cod fishing has collapsed in the North Sea.  Most of the damage to the oceans has been done in the last century. Fish catches increased from three tons at the beginning of the 20th century to almost 90 million tons in 1989.  Most of the increases happened after World War II when sonar and radar tracking technology which had been developed for military purposes, were now used to locate and catch fish.  Furthermore, super-trawlers the size of a football field were built to accommodate nets thousands of feet long.  In a single netting these boats can take up to 400 tons.

The biggest fishing vessel in the world at the moment, Atlantic Dawn, is Irish owned. According to The Guardian (February 20, 2002) its nets are twice the size of England’s Millennium Dome. The boat has been registered as a merchant vessel by the Irish government in order to avoid European Union fishing restrictions which are aimed at preserving fish stocks. The boat will fish off the West Coast of Africa for the next five years. The European Union has bought fishing rights in the area from the government of Mauritania, one of the poorest countries in the world.  Many in the environmental and development community insist that the EU agreement with Mauritania is one of total exploitation and destruction. In a short period it will deplete fish stocks and deprive local people of a traditional source of food.

The UN environment programme has expressed reservations about the depletion of fish stocks by giant EU vessels. The main fish caught is the sardinelle, which is the staple diet of the local people.  Depleting the stocks will add to malnutrition and hunger in the area.  A simple comparison between the catches of Atlantic Dawn and local boats captures the magnitude of the plunder.  The Atlantic Dawn, with a crew of 100 and automatic factory freezing facilities, will catch in a day what 10 local fishing boats catch in a year.

The Irish Green MEP Patricia McKenna is annoyed by the fact that the Irish government which takes pride in its Third World development programmes is involved in this exploitation of poor.  “To my mind this is fraud, and I cannot believe the Irish government think they can get away from it,” she said. It seems that short-term national economic gains take precedence over long-term global destruction and the impoverishment of poor Mauritanians.

As a direct result of such over-fishing the oceans fish catches peaked in 1989. In 1998 they were down over 30% despite improved gear, tracking and snaring technology.  Daniel Pauly, the author of a new study on global fishing trends, predicts that “if things go unchecked, we might end up with a marine junkyard dominated by plankton”.  Dishonesty and corruption are rife. Between 1986 and 1992 more than six times the quota for cod, flounder and redfish were taken from the Grand Bank off the Canada coast. When Spanish ships were boarded by Canadian police in 1995, the Canadians found two sets of books on board. One recorded the true tonnage of the catch for the owners.  The second set of books – with false, reduced figures – were meant for the authorities if the ships were challenged.

It is essential that human beings begin to recognise that the destruction of the oceans impoverishes the planet for all future generations. The main losers in the human community are 200 million small-scale fishermen in Third World countries like Mauritania.  These have lived for generations off the catches they have made around their native shores.  Fish has also helped to feed these communities and has often provided the main source of food, especially protein.

A Christian call
As Christians living in a world where the oceans are under threat from human activity we need to develop a positive theology of the oceans which will help us protect the seas in our modern world.  Caring for water globally and locally is a major ethical and religious challenge for Christians today.  There is an onus on each local Christian community to ensure that the water they use for baptism is really “living water” with the ability to carry all the symbolic dimensions highlighted and not merely industrial water or H2O. We need to respect water like Jesus did and do all in our power to ensure that it remains living water and continues to be source of life for all creation.

All the creatures in our world emerged from a watery environment and we carry around this water with us in our bodies. Human beings are almost 70 % water. If we continue to abuse and poison water then humans and all other forms of life will be adversely affected.


This article first appeared in The Word (May 2002), a Divine Word Missionary Publication.