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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Day Zero and Global Eco-Justice
distributed 2/16/18 - ©2018

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Ed and Gretchen Hawley of Denver, Colorado. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

"We've always imagined climate change as being a slow-moving bus, but we need to recognize that there are speed bumps along the way, and we're going through one right now." So said a water expert in Cape Town, South Africa, in what strikes me as an astonishingly calm description.

That "bump" is a long-running drought that has depleted the water supply for the Cape Town region. Plans are being made to turn off virtually all of the municipal water system for a metropolitan area of 4 million people. This would be the first time that any major city in the world has shut down the water system. (There are 11 other global cities where running out of water is a very real concern.)

Forget turning on the faucet for a drink of water, or taking a shower, or flushing a toilet. Instead, bring your jugs and buckets to one of 200 water stations around the city, where you can get the legally guaranteed minimum of 25 litres (6.6 gallons) per person per day. Be prepared to stand in line for a while, because as Smithsonian Magazine does the math, each water station will be used by about 18,000 people. The army is on standby with expectations of conflict and chaos.

The shutdown of the water system would come on Day Zero, when the city's reservoir system falls to the critically low level of 13.5% of capacity. Conservation efforts are making a difference. Day Zero had recently been forecast to come on April 16, then changed to May 11. This week, the projected date was pushed out to June 4.

Perhaps the winter rains will come by then. Perhaps not. The city has seen its winter rains come later and later in the year over the past decade. Back in the 1970s, the rains reliably started around April. Recent patterns suggest that this year, substantial rain is more likely to come around July. And when the rains have come, they've been sparse. In the last three years, rainfall has only been about half of normal. There's no expectation of deluges that will provide a dramatic boost to the reservoirs.

Climate change has many faces. The Cape Town water crisis is what one of those faces looks like. It is happening now, and it shows us why the impersonal physics of climate change lead inevitably to the social issues of climate justice.

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Consider the most basic questions of economic justice. The rich in Cape Town have been drilling personal water wells, installing huge water storage tanks, buying bottled water, and even converting a home swimming pool into a private reservoir. Families with some financial security can afford to rearrange work schedules to stand in the water lines.

The poor? For many of them it will be catastrophic, without the time or physical resources to haul the daily allotment. But for the desperately poor, Day Zero may not be a big shock. They already live with limited supplies and with contaminated water in their homes and communities. In fact, there are no plans to shut down the water system in some impoverished areas, because the normal situation in those slums always has been shared taps and minimal sanitation.

One woman who grew up in poverty said, "Using washing water to flush the toilet is what people in townships do all the time. So is washing with buckets and scuttles. I had my first shower when I was in my 20s."

Policy expert Kevin Winter said, "Millions of South Africans are living with limited access to clean water and sanitation where water scarcity is a factor of socio-political conditions that appear to be difficult to shift. Access to reliable water quality is also deeply embedded in power and privilege." That is in the country with a heritage of racial apartheid, and the country with the highest levels of income inequality in the world. Economic justice and racial justice are aspects of climate justice.

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I'm deeply grateful to the Rev. Rachel Mash, environmental coordinator for the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, for contacting me with valuable information and theological resources about the water crisis in Cape Town.

It is good to know that Cape Town faith communities have been engaged with the emerging crisis for some time. At a religious conference two weeks ago, Rachel said, "Our job as the church is to reduce water ourselves, inspire others to reduce water, share ideas on how to do that, get the message out into the community, and avert Day Zero."

If or when the countdown to Day Zero drops below 30 days, Mash said the denomination plans to install crisis committee representatives at each parish to help coordinate water home delivery for vulnerable people of all faiths and none. "If we do need to be queueing for water, it would be helpful if faith leaders are there to help marshal and to make sure the elderly, vulnerable, pregnant mums, etc., aren't standing in the hot sun for hours."

I highly recommend the 2018 Lenten resource from the Diocese of Cape Town, "Water (In)Justice." The 32 page packet "consists of five themes; (1) Sacredness of Water, (2) Water Scarcity, (3) Sanitation and Hygiene, (4) Water as a habitat and (5) Sustainability. For each theme there is a technical paper, which set out facts and figures on the subject, a theological reflection to help frame our thinking on the subject and a collect, lections, prayers for the Eucharistic Service and a Bible Study for further reflection in small groups."

As with the theological resources from Suriname that I highlighted last week, I've been informed, challenged and nurtured by the well-grounded and thoughtful materials that are being produced by church groups on the front lines of climate change. The warping of our planet's biosphere is not an abstraction to them. They are addressing this new situation with deep faith and a clear eco-justice commitment toward all people and all creation.

Even as Cape Town seeks to avert the horrendous step of shutting down the water system, and as they plan for how to deal with that catastrophe if it comes, the churches of South Africa also are acting in faith by reaching out to the rest of the world in witness. When Rachel Mash wrote to me a week ago, she explained that "we are trying to join the dots with climate change particularly for the USA audience."

Most of the people who receive Eco-Justice Notes are in the US -- and most of my readers are well acquainted with the climate crisis. But let me drive home the point today.

In Cape Town, South Africa, one of the practical steps for addressing an urgent water crisis is to reach out to those of us in the United States, pleading with us for our nation to hear them, to recognize our vast complicity in causing and accelerating climate change, and asking us to connect the dots between our nation's policies and the crisis that they face.

To the faith leaders of Cape Town, it is clear that their crisis will become even worse in the future if the US fails to act on climate change.

The Anglican Church in Cape Town has declared 2018 "The Year of Water," and is providing moral and practical leadership about the impacts of climate change on their city. The ecumenical community of Suriname spent two years developing theological and liturgical resources that speak of climate change as a threat that is both local and global.

And yet, here in the United States, our national government now has official policies of climate denial and "energy dominance" that push the world deeper into crisis. And here in the United States, far too many churches are silent about the crisis, and our complicity in it.

We are now in the season of Lent. It is a time of prayer, reflection, and repentance. Our colleagues in faith are calling out to us with a prophetic and deeply religious message. They are calling us to wake up and to speak up and to act about the devastation of God's creation.

This year, it is a moral failure if we deal with Lent as a matter of personal spirituality. We must heed the call coming to us from around the world -- and from future generations -- to name climate change as an urgent matter of faith and ethics.

This Lent, work through the study materials from Cape Town, or work through the Bible study from Suriname, or sign up for the daily emails of the Ecumenical Lenten Carbon Fast from the New England Regional Environmental Ministries.

This Lent, and beyond, speak up in your own faith community with the truth that climate change is real, that it is happening now, that it is a matter of faith and justice. If we claim to be people of faith, we can do no less.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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