This World Water Day, Andy Hamilton SJ reflects on the impact of water, in both over-abundance and scarcity, on already disadvantaged people, and our collective responsibility to respect and share water.

It is easy for some Australians to take water for granted. For others, water can be both a gift and a scourge.

People in rural areas have endured years of droughts that put their livelihood at risk and force them to ration water for washing and showering. In other years, floods cause damage to crops, destroy roads and railway lines, drive people from houses, and cause food shortages. Floods are not confined to rural or regional areas and affect our cities as well. Already this year floods have caused food shortages in the Northern Territory and swept across Queensland and New South Wales, forcing tens of thousands to evacuate, destroying thousands of homes, and resulting in deaths. These patterns of excess or absence of water are already being exacerbated by climate change. They will only worsen in the coming decades.

Water is also a source of conflict. Political scientists have described the shortage of water as the most likely cause of wars in the future. Recently in the Northern Territory, Indigenous communities opposed the massive allocation of water reserves to a mining company because of the threat it posed to them, their country and culture. In Victoria, the demand by a coal mining company for diversion of water for a huge lake to remediate their mines has also raised fear for the environment. In New South Wales, there is fear the projected raising of the Warragamba Dam to protect downstream communities from flooding will destroy Indigenous sites and affect the broader ecosystem. In addition, the allocation of water from the Murray Darling Basin is a source of constant conflict between the states through which the river system runs and between irrigators, farmers and conservationists and investors.  All of these conflicts set wealthy and powerful interests against those representing the environment and the common good. When private interests win, the losers are always those who are already disadvantaged.

The people we work with make these disputes of interest to us at Jesuit Social Services. It is socially and economically disadvantaged people who are both most affected by climate change and environmental damage, and least responsible for it. They are at disproportionate risk of having their water cut off and have fewer resources to adapt to the effects of drought, water shortage or flood. They cannot take water for granted.

We recognise the need for a shared acknowledgment that water is a gift that sustains life, both of human beings and of the whole world of which we are part. It is a public good, not a commodity to be owned, bought and sold at the whim of those with the wealth and power to take possession of it. Governments have a responsibility for regulating its use in a way that preserves and sustains the natural environment of which it is a vital part, and allows communities all along the rivers and the underground reserves that carry it to share equitably and sustainably in it.

This shared responsibility does not stop at state and national boundaries. Nations building dams near the catchment areas of a river system that sustains many other nations must take responsibility for the effect this will have on the environment downstream and the people who are part of it.  As in so many other areas, the key to developing our resources is to respect the human dignity of each person involved in the development and the common good of the communities whose life depends in direct and indirect ways on the water and the wider ecology of which it is part. Water is a gift to be respected, treasured and shared to sustain lives.