Using Ethical Principles, Not Money, to Guide Our Use of Water

By Susan Lea Smith, First Congregational UCC, Salem, OR

bottled-waterQuestioning whether to continue serving bottled water at your church’s events? Not sure about how to respond to Nestle’s attempt to use Oregon spring water from the Columbia Gorge?  Outraged about our rivers being destroyed by corporate water pollution? Feeling guilty about your five minute shower?  Wondering how to protect enough water instream to keep aquatic ecosystems healthy?  Doubting that there will be sufficient water available for growing food given the push toward biofuel, tar sands, and other industrial water use?  Resolute in your conviction that everyone should have safe drinking water and adequate sanitation facilities? Interested in whether private corporations should be in charge of providing water and sanitation services?  Uncertain whether desalination is the right way to address increasing water scarcity caused by climate change.  If you use water in your daily life, read on!

This issue of “Rolling Justice” presents the ten fundamental principles of water justice declared by the Ecumenical Water Network, World Council of Churches (EWN-WCC).  EWN is the World Council of Churches’ program initiative, which advocates for water justice at international level and supports churches in water justice efforts at national and local levels.  EWN uses these principles, and the commentary explaining them, to guide its water justice program.

The “ten commandments” of water justice have recently been articulated in EWN’s theological foundation, which will be published, along with 17 reflections on water justice by theologians and water activists, in Smith, Suna, and Zacariah’s forthcoming book, Pilgrimage of Water Justice: A Theological Foundation for Faith Action (WCC 2016).  The theological foundation more fully explains the principles as well as discussing the realities and roots of water injustice, the Christian faith basis for water justice advocacy, and the role of faith communities in achieving water justice.  As you think about water, consider using the principles as a means to make decisions about water use and to bring your faith more deeply into everyday life.

Fundamental Principles of Water Justice (2015)


I. Ethical Management

Water justice requires ethical management of water, rather than management of water as an economic good.

II. Intergenerational Equity

Water justice requires that we manage water as a gift from God to be available for life-sustaining purposes to the current and all future generations.  We must not deplete groundwater reserves, we must protect the sustained availability of surface water, and we must not destroy the ability to use ground or surface water by polluting it.

III.    Protect Biodiversity and Aquatic Ecosystems

Water justice requires responsible human action to preserve biodiversity  and to maintain the ecological integrity and resilience of aquatic ecosystems.

IV. Assure universal access to water and sanitation

Water justice requires universal access to safe water and adequate sanitation.  Efforts to provide such access should give preference to the poor and marginalized.

V. Assure access to water by smallholders

Water justice requires that water be available for use by subsistence and smallholder farmers, herders, and fishers.

VI. Assure availability of water for priority uses

Water justice requires that three uses of water take precedence over any other water uses:  water for household uses; water for food provided by smallholder farmers, herders and fishers; and water to maintain aquatic ecosystem integrity and resilience.

VII. Democratic water governance

Water justice requires democratic governance of water.

VIII. Water is a common good

Water justice requires that water be considered a common good.   No compensable private rights in water should be created.

IX. Prevent economic exploitation of water

Water justice requires that use of water for commercial purposes be strictly regulated.  Economic exploitation of water is unethical. The principles explore the extent to which water marketing, commercial water bottling and consumption of bottled water, privitization of water services, and water pricing practices constitute economic exploitation of water.

X. Meet water stewardship responsibilities

Water users have profound stewardship responsibilities with respect to water that we are ethically bound to meet.  The principles suggest that we should avoid waste, pollution, alteration of natural flow, desalination of marine water, and groundwater use that leads to saltwater intrusion.


Susan Smith represents the national United Church of Christ on EWN’s advisory board and served as preliminary drafter of the principles.  She is available to meet with CPC congregations wishing to explore the principles and/or other water justice concerns in more detail.  Just e-mail her at