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Harvard Divinity School: all religions value water

By Sarah Delaney
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Conflicts over fresh water sources are likely to increase in coming years, but political and scientific approaches are not sufficient to resolve them, said participants in a workshop at the Vatican.

Spirituality, ethics and a strong commitment to justice must be part of the solution, agreed the water experts gathered at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences Oct. 14.

"The survival of humanity and of all other species on earth depends upon the fate of water. Where water is absent, life is absent," said Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, chancellor of the academy.

People have fought over dominance of water sources for thousands of years, said Peter Gleick, one of the organizers of the workshop titled "Water Conflicts and Spiritual Transformation: A Dialogue."

But the need to share the precious resource has generated a surprising amount of cooperation over the centuries as well, he said.

"It seems clear that there is a spiritual or religious dimension that can connect people when it comes to water," said Gleick, director of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute, which researches water-related environmental and developmental issues.

"Technological, economic and scientific solutions are not enough," he said. "Water is different than other resources, such as oil. People of different religious and scientific backgrounds treat water in a special way.

"We are coming together to foster that, to prevent the risk of conflict. We want to figure out how to move from conflict to cooperation," he said.

Several religions and many countries were represented by the workshop's 25 participants, who included scientists, scholars, government officials, aid workers and religious leaders.

The sometimes lofty discussion was brought down to earth by Bishop Sanchez.

"There must be two approaches to the problem. Scientists must work to conserve, locate and even produce sources of fresh water. And the social sciences, including religions, must try to ensure justice in the distribution of water. Water must be available to everyone," the bishop said.

Water, which is "valued and respected in all religions and cultures," has become a "symbol of social equity," Bishop Sanchez said. The lack of water in many parts of the world is not a question of actual scarcity, but of the distribution. One of the biggest threats to equitable water rights is the trend toward privatization, he said.

Bishop Sanchez said he hoped the workshop would result in the resolution of a fundamental agreement among religions to work toward justice in water supplies for all populations.

Mary Evelyn Tucker, professor of religion at Bucknell University, Lewisburg, Pa., said: "There's the realization that scientific and political approaches are needed, but they are not sufficient. A spiritual and ethical approach is needed as well."

She added: "There is nothing abstract about it. Water is life; without it there is no life."

As co-director of a Harvard Divinity School project studying ecology and the role of religions of the world, Tucker said that a religious approach to the environment is relatively new.

"But all religions value water," making religions natural advocates of the need to protect it, Tucker said.

"And ethics have been the missing link in the environmental discussion," she added. "We need another dimension."