|| Preview by James Keane

The dependence of Western economies on fossil fuels has led many an economist or cultural critic to give oil the label “liquid gold,” the natural resource every civilization covets. If trends continue, however, oil may well have a competitor for that title in the coming century: fresh water.

In Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis, Christiana Peppard addresses the ethical, ecological and economic issues surrounding this resource—and the ramifications for everyone, and especially for the global poor, if access to fresh water becomes increasingly difficult. “The presence or absence of clean, fresh water always shapes the realization of human, societal, ecosystemic, biotic, and planetary potentiality on many levels of scale and in a wide swath of contexts.” says Peppard, assistant professor of theology, science and ethics at Fordham University.

One of her goals in writing Just Water, she says, was to “help to advance the discourse about globalization, hydrology, environmental ethics, theology and the construction of value.”

Fresh water makes up only 2.5 percent of all the water on earth. Seventy percent of that amount is locked up in the planet’s ice caps or other inaccessible polar regions. Pollution renders a significant portion of the remaining supply unsuitable for human use. Given the demands of a growing population, intensive agricultural cultivation and livestock production, climate change and the harnessing of many fresh water sources for energy or ruinous practices such as hydrofracking, where will we find enough fresh water to go around?

Fresh water has always been part of our religious symbolism, from Moses drawing water from the rock to Jesus offering “living water” that will quench one’s thirst forever. The ways in which access to fresh water is influenced by economic, social, military or political power, however, make the issue of fresh water an ethical one for our time as well. Peppard acidly notes the move of some corporations to reclassify fresh water as a commodity to be bought and sold rather than a basic human right.

She connects such strategies to an inability to acknowledge the unsustainability of our current water use patterns. Peppard asserts that access to water may be the “fundamental right-to-life issue” of our century.

She suggests practical solutions but concludes that conceptual changes are more important. We need to value fresh water as a sine qua non of human existence. This requires rethinking the “commodity” approach, especially in the West, where fresh water has always flowed from the tap. It will also require rethinking the ways we do business. Otherwise, for millions of people, fresh water will become nothing less than liquid gold.

James Keane is acquisitions editor at Orbis Books.