Melanie DeMore sings as the conference concludes: “We got to put one foot in front of the other and lead with love.”
Trinity Wall Street/Facebook

By Kirk Petersen and John Kingsley Martin

Potable water is necessary for life, and the Trinity Institute’s “Water Justice: A Global Theological Conference” explored disturbing statistics about limited access to it. The conference met March 22-24 at Trinity Wall Street.

“Nearly one billion people, one person out of nine on the planet, do not have access to clean water,” said the Rev. David Toomey, a priest and economist who leads value-for-money assessments of water and sanitation programs in 12 African and Asian countries. “Twenty-two hundred children under five die every day because of polluted water that is their only source.”

“Unsafe drinking water, together with a lack of basic sanitation, causes 81 percent of all sickness and disease in the world,” said the Most Rev. Thabo Makgoba, Archbishop of Cape Town, speaking live via Skype from St. George’s Cathedral, which hosted a similar conference.

Several speakers cast the issue in spiritual terms. “We have forgotten the sacredness of water. Water is mentioned 722 times in the Bible. Water literally frames the biblical story. Before Creation even took place, the waters were there. Water is a primal element of life,” Makgoba said.

“Change your lifestyle,” he told participants. “End indifference to the importance of water.”

He said Christians must not be silent about water pollution, whether through urban sprawl or acid-mine drainage. It is poor people who suffer most in time of drought and water scarcity, he said.

He urged Christians to oppose agricultural, industrial, weapon processes that contaminate water supplies. He urged them to identify a stretch of beach and make a regular commitment to keeping it clean and removing rubbish.

He added a personal note. The people who lived in Magoebaskloof, Limpopo, where he was born and lived before his family were forcibly removed during the Apartheid era, still struggle to obtain adequate water. He said the apartheid government discontinued regular water supplies  to Magoebaskloof after people were forcibly moved to Hammanskraal, north of Pretoria.

Makoba is chairman of the design group for the 2020 Lambeth Conference, which could signal one topic likely to be discussed.

A recurring theme of the conference, telegraphed by the word justice in its title, is that water-related problems disproportionately affect the poorest and most vulnerable people. When the only water is miles away, women and girls trudge those miles every day with water jugs on their heads.

“This daily march exposes women to danger, takes them away from homes, from caring for children, from earning a living. It takes them away from life maintenance itself,” Toomey said. “The lack of acceptable clean water creates a cycle of under-education” for girls.

There was a particular emphasis on the city hosting the conference. Kim Stanley Robinson, author of more than 20 science-fiction novels, talked about his forthcoming New York 2140, which imagines the destruction and chaos that would ensue if climate change leads to significantly higher seas.

In a panel discussion Robert Freudenberg of the Regional Plan Association cited maps showing what portion of the island would be consumed by 1-foot, 3-foot, or 6-foot rises in sea level.

Climate change is accelerating the loss of habitat from storms and rising seas, said William Golden of the New York/New Jersey Storm Surge Working Group. “Nine of the 10 costliest storms in the history of the country have occurred since 2004.”

Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe said that while teaching at Texas Tech University, she discovered a high concentration of both climate-change skeptics and climate change-effects. “I ended up, accidentally or serendipitously, in the state that is most vulnerable to a changing climate … in a state where people don’t even think it’s real.”

She offered a primer on how to talk about climate change by focusing on problems that matter to the listener. “That is the key to talking about this issue across the political, ideological, theological, and even racial divides that exist today,” she said.

She described speaking at a meeting of water managers that included two state officials who dispute climate change.

“I talked about long-term trends, I talked about droughts and floods, I talked about future projections,” Hayhoe said. “I talked about resilience and adaptation, I talked about how things are changing. I never said climate, I never said change, but I talked all about it.”

Hayhoe quoted a woman as telling her, “That was a great presentation, I agree with everything you said, it just makes sense. … You know, these people go around talking about global warming. I don’t agree with that stuff at all, but this — this makes sense.”

In addition to Archbishop Makgoba, Anglicans who addressed the group included the Rt. Rev. James Jones, retired Bishop of Liverpool, speaking live from St. Paul’s Cathedral in London; the Archbishop of Polynesia; the Bishop of Cuba; and Anglicans from Australia, India, Kenya, Pakistan, and cities in the United States.

The conference reflected the resources and global reach of Trinity Church Wall Street, an institution often noted for its wealth — a sizable endowment that traces back to a land grant by Queen Anne in 1705 of 215 acres of Lower Manhattan, much of which is now Wall Street and the Financial District.

Robert Owens Scott, director of the church’s Trinity Institute, described the institutions Trinity has worked with around the world. “Our goal is to take the resources that we’re blessed with — of place, of finance, of history, and technology — and help them to do more than maybe they could on their own, and more than we could on our own.”

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