Water is sacred – Archbishop Thabo speaks at the International Justice Conference


Good morning  New York! Good afternoon Cape Town. Good day everyone.  We are so glad you are with us, whether in St Georges Cathedral, the People’s Cathedral in Capetown, in Trinity Church Wall Street or at one of the nearly 80 online venues, from Arizona to Wisconsin , from Alberta to Ontario or Panama City.

I like you,  believe in God. I believe in the realities that God has put in front of us.. today  I want to address some of these uncomfortable truths. We live in a VUCA world.

Yes; VUCA: a world of Volatility, Uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

and nothing is more VUCA that the issue of water justice. Millions can live without love.. but  no one can live without water.  Clean drinking water is the most fundamental human right. It is central to the well being of all people on the planet and the lack of access to clean , fresh water is one of the most serious threats to human health. Unsafe drinking water, together with the lack of basic sanitation, causes 81 percent of all sickness and diseases in the world.

In the end our harsh uncomfortable truth reality is, we don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.. it’s their water we are talking about.

The book of the prophet Amos gives us a strong challenge

“Let Justice flow down like rivers, and righteousness like a never ending stream” Amos 5:24

Justice and water are closely linked. In our city on one side are homes with more bathrooms that people, with big swimming pools and vast lawns for a couple of children to play on. On the other side, a dozen families share one communal toilet and tap and on some days we are not sure the  tap is working or there is clean water coming from it..

Girls are afraid to use the facilities at night for fear of being raped and children play in the filthy water seeping from the poorly services toilets. In South Africa  it  has recently been estimated that sixteen million people  do not have access to basic sanitation facilities (1 in 3 people).[1]  Not only is the access of water a health threat, it is also one of the biggest business risks to our country and. with climate change drought and flooding become more common

We have forgotten the sacredness of water. Water does not come from a tap – it comes from a river and that river comes from our Creator. Water is mentioned 722 times in the Bible. Water  literally frames the Biblical story. The first book, Genesis, starts with a wonderful poetic image of water and Creation.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. 2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. (Genesis 1)

Before creation even took place, the waters were there. Water is a primal element giving birth to life. It is no wonder that when a child is born the waters break to symbolize the start of the journey – a new life coming into the world. And in the last book of the Bible, Revelations, we have a wonderful vision of re-creation. The followers of Jesus are being persecuted and in the midst of pain and destruction, John the writer encourages them to persevere, with this vision of re-creation.

22 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse”.

What a beautiful vision! Unfortunately  it is beautiful in biblical verse but not in the reality of human life.

In South African society there has tended to be a divide between the environmentalists and the activists for social justice.  As Pope Francis says “we have separated the cry of the poor from the cry of the Earth”. This is nowhere more evident than in water.  Our modern globalized society via industry and agriculture  is stressing our water resources , and the lack of water impacts on the quality of life of the poor and the marginalized.

Those passionate about the environment tend to focus on Creation theology and look to the Creation stories and the Psalms. They focus on the beauty of creation and the need to protect it.  Activists for social justice draw their theology from the stories of liberation of  Exodus, they focus on poverty and the need for liberation from oppression.

I want to pose a question – where is the critical bridge that we all need to build and cross.? the bounty of our land including its water resources –  is to be used for the widow, the alien and the oppressed and the future generations. Christians know the name of the river that Jesus was baptized in – the River Jordan.  If we developed a theology of the river Jordan it would hold together economics and ecology, recognizing that “we all live downstream. it would remind us for example that “freedom is worth nothing for the poor if we cannot deal with sewage. [2]

So what are the  most essential water challenges and what are we going to do about them?

In Capetown there are three sources of water which are under threat: our rivers, our oceans and our aquifer.

Firstly our rivers:

It is not just that the rains do not fall – many  of the threats to water are coming from companies who pollute rivers with industrial pollution. In South Africa we  suffer a lot from acid mine drainage affecting our water systems. The shareholders of mining companies make a profit, but the local communities are left with water degradation.  This is a lack of environmental responsibility. As a church we must stand against environmental processes that pollute our water sources.  . Large corporate farms are also responsible, as the run-off from artificial fertilizers and pesticides pollutes the rivers.

What can the church do? Three words:

Educate, illuminate and elevate

  • We as leaders in the church must understand the language and the issues of clean water
  • As leaders in the church we must help illuminate our congregations and our local, regional and national leaders to the mistakes that are being made
  • We must elevate our nations decision makers consciousness to commit to addressing this most basic human need and engage those that are willfully or mindlessly polluting to face these realities.

These are what I call “courageous conversations”

Many churches are beginning to get involved in river clean ups as part of their spiritual journey.  Last year on Nelson Mandela day a tiny church Holy Cross in Nyanga encouraged their youth to go and clean the streets. One little church in the Glencairn valley adopted the Glencairn wetland and it is being cleaned up and transformed. This is being replicated across the city.  Secondly our aquifer:

Many of us may not realise that beneath our city there is the underground sea of  the Cape Flats Aquifer.

The Cape Flats Aquifer is Cape Town’s hidden treasure. A vast area of some 630 square kilometers of porous rock lies beneath the City – stretching from the Cape Flats to the West Coast  – it holds vast stores of underground water. Studies by the United Nations Environmental Programme reveal that the Aquifer has the potential to supply more than two thirds of the  Mother City’s basic water needs:

“The sustainable use of the Cape Flats aquifer… is estimated at 49  million litres a day)”

The water from the aquifer currently irrigates the farms of the Philippi Horticultural Area.  Amazingly, these  farmlands are  drought-proof  – yes they are irrigating as we speak – and produce 200,000 tonnes of food and employ  6,000 workers every year. More than two thirds of the vegetables on the  plates of those of you listening in Capetown  come from the Philippi Horticultural Area. This area  is the key re-charge zone for the Cape Flats Aquifer that has not been paved over. In built-up areas, roofs and roads, pipes and drains carry storm water into the sea and starve the aquifer.

The Philippi Horticultural Area and the Aquifer are our treasures.  What must we do to protect them?

At this time of water crisis, we call upon the City to urgently protect the Aquifer. We learn with distress that the City is fast tracking the rezoning of more than a third of the Philippi Horticultural Area for housing developments, silica sand mining, malls, private schools and a private prison. Last month, Heritage Western Cape denied   an  appeal by developers to rezone a small portion of the PHA, but the rest is still under threat.

City officials are  the stewards of our resources, and these resources must be preserved for future generations. We cannot sacrifice our source of water and I call upon citizens of Cape Town, let us educate ourselves about the Cape Flats Aquifer, and work together to protect this pearl beyond price.

What can churches do?

One small green team , from Christ Church Constantia, decided to adopt the Philippi Horticultural area as their Eco- justice project. They called a meeting to inform people about the threats to the Aquifer and over 130 people came. They used their contacts to raise awareness of the issues at stake.

These  examples show how churches can make a difference – by adopting a small portion of river or ocean and committing to keeping it clean, or by raising awareness and mobilizing people around an issue.

So else can we do?

  1. Remember that water is sacred.

We have reduced water to a commodity. We have lost the sense of sacredness of water, seeing it as ‘something that comes out of a tap’. How can we reconnect with water as something holy and precious? Where did the water come from that was used for your baptism? Where is your Jordan River? Can you identify it and see if it is clean and free from rubbish?

Water is a sacred gift from God and, speaking for Christians, it’s  not just full-time conservationists who are called to be stewards of God’s creation – it’s all of us! So we need to educate ourselves and understand where the water we use comes from. We need to look at how we use it – make sure we use water carefully, turn off dripping taps, check our water meters to make sure there are no leaks.

Let water inspire and heal us – let us keep connected to natural water source areas and help ensure we have examples left of pristine habitats to leave as a legacy to our children and children’s children.

  1. Care for our oceans and rivers

Enormous quantities of rubbish end up in rivers and oceans. The statistics on waste are shocking – by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans per weight than fish.

The best way we care for our oceans and rivers is to be passionate campaigners against waste –  Last year I was proud of the church’s Mothers’ Union, when they banned the use of Styrofoam cups at church social functions – stopping the use of a material that breaks down into tiny particles that are now forming endlessly circulating masses in the sea.

  1. Fight climate change

We must step up the fight against climate change. Much of what I have said has particular reference to Africa and of course we all have a part to play, but in current circumstances and with the change of administration, let me suggest that this is something which our American sisters and brothers can take special responsibility for.

Good people of God, if we think this drought is bad – then believe me “we ain’t seen nothing yet”. We are only beginning to see the changes climate change is bringing to our part of the world.

The most important message I can leave you with is this – if you want to do something, then change your lifestyle, influence your congregations and communities and illuminate your politicians  and let us make fighting climate change the highest priority on all of our agendas.

Let me end with a challenge to us all:

We have lived our lives by the assumption that was  good for us would be good for the world. We were wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it. It means living  for the good of the community, for all  of us, not living for my own personal ends.  It means living the WE and not the ME

To sum up, let us end the indifference.

Let us end our indifference to the importance of water and its centrality in our faith and our lives.

The opposite of love is not hate it is indifference

The opposite of art is not ugliness, it is indifference

The opposite of faith is not heresy it is indifference

The opposite of live is not death it is indifference.

God bless you, your families and God bless the world.



[1] (“Water is life, sanitation is dignity” South African Human Rights Commission.)

[2] https://water.oikoumene.org/en/whatwedo/seven-weeks-for-water/past/2009-water-and-justice/dealing-with-our-own-sewage-a-jordan-river-perspective  Steve de Gruchy

2 thoughts on “Water is sacred – Archbishop Thabo speaks at the International Justice Conference”

  1. Rev Chanju Allan Banda

    This is a timely delivered speech.It is indeed true that water is indispensable and sacred too.In Malawi and hopefully the world over water is polluted every second.Fellow churchmen and the whole body of Christ,the onus is on us hence concerted efforts must be employed towards civic educating communities and individuals to avoid water pollution in order to preserve its sacredness.

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