Acton Commentary

What to Do about Water?


A few weeks ago, my family and I awoke to discover that we had no water. Because we live in a rural area, we have a well rather than water provided by our closest city. It turns out that our problem was the failure of a small but expensive part in the system. What was striking was the sense of panic that a lack of water brought about. Suddenly, something that we assumed to be readily available was gone. Getting ready for school, washing clothes, taking a shower, and preparing breakfast became impossible.

For those who have a consistent, clean, and usable supply, it is easy to take water for granted. It is a luxury, however, that is not afforded to over 1 billion people on the planet. Water is essential to life and yet, according to United Nations' statistics, nearly 75% of the world's population will have water resource problems by the year 2025. Clearly, this is an issue that demands our attention. According to the principles of the Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship , people of faith ought to seek solutions to environmental problems reflecting the truth that “growing affluence, technological innovation, and the application of human and material capital are integral to environmental improvement.”

At least one group of religious leaders is beginning to take note of the importance of the water issue. A conference in Taipei, Taiwan last month focused on the topic of clean and accessible water. The event, themed “The Spiritual and Ecological Significance of Water,” was an interfaith ecumenical gathering. These people are to be congratulated. Religious leaders who are serious about the social demands of the Gospel ought to be paying attention.

What remains to be seen, however, is how well religious leaders can diagnose the problem and propose solutions that are fair, scientifically balanced, and make economic sense. These details are where the devil will reside.

What would be the solution if we discovered that the amount of water lost each year in the United States because of corroded and leaky pipes was enough to meet the water needs for each person on the planet for that same year? Or, put another way, we in the U.S leak one gallon of water per day for each of the 6 billion people on the planet.

Certainly this fact has to change the focus of the discussion. The problem isn't a lack of water. Rather, the problem is a poor delivery system in our own country (and other countries) that does not use the resources we have in a responsible way. We are not being good stewards of the earth's bounty.

There is a simple and cost-effective way to address this issue and it is something that most of us already make use of in our own homes: PVC pipe, which has a product life 10 times greater than that of metal piping.

The phenomenon of PVC pipe represents a technological innovation that offers a practical solution to a verifiable environmental problem. PVC pipes are more cost effective, reliable, and efficient at delivering water than are older, iron-based pipe systems. This is a clear case of fulfilling the Cornwall Declaration's aspiration that “advancements in agriculture, industry, and commerce not only minimize pollution and transform most waste products into efficiently used resources but also improve the material conditions of life for people everywhere.”

And it is here that the devil joins the conversation. While some, like many at November's Taipei conference, are concerned about the best ways to reliably protect water supplies, other people of faith are actively seeking to undermine the best methods of water conservation.

Sadly, the soundness of a PVC-based solution to water conservation is adamantly opposed by some religious activists who have sought to baptize the agenda of radical environmentalists. The Building in Good Faith (BIGF) initiative, embraced by both the National Religious Partnership on the Environment (NRPE) and the National Council of Churches (NCC), seeks to purge PVC from all building materials, including water supply systems.

This “green” building agenda contends that “PVC is the worst plastic from an environmental health perspective, posing great environmental and health hazards in its manufacture, product life and disposal.” While these sweeping claims about PVC are based on speculation and questionable science, concerns about water conservation are real and potentially life-saving.

When faced with two competing claims--one unfounded and the other legitimate--the Cornwall Declaration gives us good reason to embrace the latter and avoid the former: “Public policies to combat exaggerated risks can dangerously delay or reverse the economic development necessary to improve not only human life but also human stewardship of the environment.”

As much as the legitimate focus on the water conservation crisis is to be celebrated, however, attention to the problem is not enough. The question becomes, “How will people of faith approach this problem?” Will we embrace a radical “green” agenda like that of Building in Good Faith, or will we see that technology, business, and sound environmental policy must be the cornerstone principles for addressing water usage?

We can only hope and pray that the valid concerns about water conservation will trump the alarmist rhetoric of the anti-PVC advocates. The success of our efforts to address the critical issues of the water conservation crisis hangs in the balance.