Get serious about sewage, theologian tells sustainability activists

By Stephen Brown
28 Jan 2009

The way society deals with its sewage is indicative of its commitment to sustainability, a South African academic has told a gathering of theologians in Brazil in advance of the World Social Forum, a global event questioning exploitative globalisation.

"Our thinking about sustainability must deal with sewage because we have to live with our waste. It cannot leave the globe. It hangs around and it comes back to haunt us," Steve de Gruchy of the University of KwaZulu-Natal said in an address to the 3rd World Forum on Theology and Liberation, which met from 21 to 25 January 2009 in Belem.

"Previous civilisations may have got away with flushing the problem downstream, but in a globalised world there is no downstream, or, more correctly, we all live downstream," De Gruchy told the forum, which focused on the theme of sustainability, under the slogan "Water, Earth, Theology - for another possible world".

The question of sewage, De Gruchy said, speaking on 23 January in this northeastern Brazilian city, "is the place where economics and ecology collide … Outside of our ability to deal with our s**t, there can be no real talk of sustainability."

In post-apartheid South Africa, he noted, the government has been unable, despite making it a national goal, to eradicate the bucket system of sewage collection in poor communities, where human waste is collected in open buckets and taken away by municipal workers.

At the same time, a top South African water scientist, Anthony Turton, was suspended in 2008 as he was about to deliver a paper stating that five of the country's major dams were contaminated with toxin levels that were among the highest in the world. Meanwhile , in neighbouring Zimbabwe, an outbreak of cholera has claimed more than 1800 deaths, "caused by a complete breakdown in public health structures, water sanitation and governance".

These three events, De Gruchy said, "point to the fundamental crisis of sustainability that we face in southern Africa today". Political and economic aspirations that demand an end to dehumanising living conditions are colliding with "collapsing management" of public assets and growing shortages of water, and leading to an impending health disaster.

"How do we face up to the fact that it is not just human greed and rampant consumerism that is in conflict with the earth, but also the legitimate human aspirations of the poor?" De Gruchy asked. He called for legal constraints, "to bind the strong and to limit the powerful", adding that there is a need to resist the privatisation of water and sewage, "because profits cannot be put above human dignity".

De Gruchy urged the development of an "olive agenda" that blends the "brown agenda" focusing on poverty and the "green agenda" aimed at the environment.

"Bucket toilets, cholera and water shortages are about poverty and therefore economics, and therefore they must be high on the brown agenda. At the same time they are about water and sanitation and therefore ecology, and therefore must be high on the green agenda," he stated.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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