Justice rolling like a river: the fight for clean water in Kenya

Guest post by cadet Richard Bradbury

“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”

Amos 5 : 24


I know there is a much wider story here but it has always intrigued me why Amos chose water as a symbol of justice and righteousness. The back story to this commonly quoted verse in social justice spheres is quite clear but this reference is to water is fascinating. Israel appears to be a strong, prosperous people and doing all the things it is supposed to be doing, but God (and Amos) knows that this is just a big, fat front. Beneath the facade of their perceived faithfulness lays corruption, abuse, and greed. This brings wealth and power to some at the expense of others and this makes Amos really, really angry. He rebukes the Israelites strongly for their failure to keep the covenant, which is rooted in justice, and attacks their hypocrisy and their lack of compassion for others. And then he finishes his outburst by uniting justice and waters in the same sentence. They immediately become metaphorical and significant partners!

When I think of social justice my mind doesn’t naturally think of water. In fact, clean water is not something many of us in the so called ‘developed’ countries have to think about at all. When we take a shower or leave the tap running or flush the toilet, few of us give thought to the water involved or where it comes from; or how our use of waters affects others; or how other people have to deal with water; or why exactly some people have limitless access to water, while others have little access at all. Amos was a shepherd by profession and perhaps drew upon imagery he knew well. It is not the first time he has used water or lack of it to illustrate his point. Maybe for Amos his business, which in those day was pretty much his life, depended on the availability of water for his animals. Maybe the rivers around where he was a shepherd were seasonal rivers, like many rivers in Kenya, where water is sometimes found and other times not.  Whatever the reasons justice and water seem natural partners for Amos.

For many people today, water cannot be equated with justice. They dream of the kind of justice Amos is talking about in relation to water and society. For instance, in Nairobi where I live, it is estimated that 72% of the population live on 7% of the land. Within the centre of the city you find Kibera, one of the most populated informal settlements (locally known as slums) in the world where most people have no land to develop water facilities. This creates a situation in which low-income people without the means, or indeed space, for land ownership must spend disproportionate amounts of time, energy and financial resources finding and collecting water. People have to pay an overinflated price each time they use a toilet so many resort to quick and unsafe methods of disposal of waste. Flying toilets are a well-known phenomenon in the slums of Nairobi, which I can only equate with the “gardyloo” approach of the sixteenth century that I learnt about in History at school in Scotland.

The United Nations estimates that 1.8 billion people globally use a source of drinking water that is fecally contaminated. Yet in the city of Nairobi, the rich and the emerging middle class enjoy vast acres of land with plenty of water for baths, showers and sometimes even swimming pools. It gets worse. Recently I visited another slum, Mathare, where the drainage system from a newly built super highway has led to masses of overflowing water, and not in the way Amos was taking about. The excess water now flows, rather unjustly, into this overcrowded urban area causing flooding and increasing the risk of diseases and loss of businesses, while those commuters who can afford cars enjoy a relatively smooth journey into work. I don’t even have space to go into the issues for many rural communities around the world where people (usually women and children) walk for miles to collect water. The search for safe water often takes hours. This poses health risks for pregnant women and creates a decrease in the education of young children who do not have enough time to go to school. Yet at the same time we see wastefulness in many developed countries on an industrial and colossal level.

If we drop in the awkward issue of sanitation then justice really takes a hammering. It is estimated that 2.5 billion people lack access to toilets and 1.1 billion people defecate in the open. No coincidence then that sanitation was considered the most off-track Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target. Thankfully, water and sanitation gets a bullet point of its own in the newly agreed to Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).  There are a number of reasons for the lack of justice when it comes to sanitation but one is clearly that we don’t like to talk about it. Sanitation receives little attention because of stigma associated with the words around it such as diarrhea and open defecation. We have many visitors from overseas in Kenya. It is one of the many blessings about living in another culture. One of the many joys of being married to a nurse is that when it comes to health, Heidie tells it how it is. Using words or phrases such as upset stomach or stomach problem or expressing the desire to stay near to the toilet do not wash (pun intended) for Heidie. I have sometimes cringed when she has asked if a newly acquainted person has mild or chronic diarrhea or enquired as to how watery their stools are. But I often note that for many people diarrhea is often laughed at as an embarrassing nuisance. For children living in Kenya, it’s neither; it is the biggest cause of death by a mile. It’s not a nuisance it’s a killer. So how is it that it is relatively easily treated if you have money but is a massive danger if you don’t? That doesn’t seem fair to me.

But there is some hope. We have many water projects here in Kenya and, as with many other countries, I have seen water scarcity as a problem which the development agencies or faith based organisations can solve. The more boreholes we drill, the more rainwater harvesting systems we install, the more sand dams we build then the less water will be a problem. Therefore a developmental response is necessary and really important. For many it is the difference between life and death, between joy and misery, between defeat and hope. It is also an important Christian response for as Matthew writes “If anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward”. Whilst I accept that I might be taking this verse a bit too literally, it is certainly a clear direction on the part of Christ. Water is an important and vibrant theme running through the bible so we know that, one way or another, it has got to be important to followers of Jesus.

RB2Last year, it was a great joy for me to open some new water and sanitation facilities in a rural area in Eastern Kenya. We witnessed the opening of a two new toilet blocks for the children. It was a real encouragement to hear the head girl speaking about the embarrassment of using the old toilets, which were shared with the boys and offered no privacy at school. This often meant the girls stayed home during their periods. When they first get their period, their embarrassment and shame often only makes the situation worse. Our projects are addressing issues of inequality and gender through their outcomes. School absenteeism is down, achievement is up – especially amongst the girls. I was feeling very proud of my team. Then the next speaker got up – the Chairperson of the Village Management Committee – and something hit me. She bravely confronted the politicians sitting on the front row -who seemed essentially to be trying to make political capital out of our projects – about the systemic injustice. She told them straight that it was their obligation as politicians to protect the rights of their people and to provide access to water and sanitation. They should not be seeing this as welfare or helping, it was the right, proper and Christian thing to do. I was stunned! She was simply reflecting Amos view that God’s idea of justice is fair and proper treatment of the poor and needy. Systems that keep the poor in poverty and the rich getting richer – whether it be wealth, property, water, land or whatever –is unjust and unfair. I really felt uncomfortable. By trying to do right and good, was I inadvertently colluding with an unjust systems that takes no account of those in poverty?

I left this meeting with so many thoughts and lots more questions buzzing around my head. If is generally agreed that water, whilst scarce, is scattered relatively equally around the world, how comes access if easy for some and not for others? Why do things such as socio-economic status, race, religion, gender or any other discriminating factor now seem to play a role in the fair distribution of water? Like the arguments sometimes levied against the food banks, maybe our water projects are addressing symptoms rather than the systemic issues. The more I travel around Kenya now, the more I feel that access to clean water is linked to all kinds of issues including the environment, gender, class, and race. Essentially, I am beginning to realise that access to clean water is a social justice issue that could be solved by addressing the greater structural issues that cause inequality. Therefore, I have stopped talking about people not having access to water and reframed it more to consider how people are denied access to water. Then it becomes much less an issue of welfare and/or alleviating poverty and much more an issue of social justice. As Amos reminds us, when The Salvation Army supports or covers up an unfair system or society like this, no matter how well intentioned our actions are and if we stand quietly by when we see unjust things, like unfair access to water, then the worship services, our meetings and our work become meaningless and quite frankly God hates it. It’s not just a development matter, it’s also a Kingdom matter.

So now we are regrouping and refocusing as The Salvation Army in Kenya. Advocacy and coalition building are key areas of our work. As well as providing water, we are pushing our leaders to commit themselves to increasing access to safe water, sanitation, and hygiene on a local and national level so that the millions living without can live with dignity and health in future. Already we are working with local politicians to lobby the government to at least increase their budget and provide a small portion of their allocation to offering proper sanitation facilities in schools.  We have met with local Governors to tell them of the current situations and encourage them to take the water and sanitation issues more seriously. Last week, I was so chuffed when, as part of our water project, some local community members were invited to participate in the decision making process for budget allocations in one county. Amos’s ultimate vision of justice, both metaphorical and literally, is where everyone has fair access to water. Only when I can visit the village and use someone’s pit latrine at their home or turn on the tap within their homestead, only then will justice and fairness really roll like waters across the world.