06th December 2021

Book in Focus

Cascading Challenges in the Global Water Crisis

Edited by Gerard Magill and James Benedict


Our book on Cascading Challenges in the Global Water Crisis contains the presentations of a 2017 conference, part of an annual endowed series held at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, USA. The annual conference takes its inspiration from the leadership of Pope Francis to protect our global ecology and environment. Pope Francis enunciated a bold and dramatic vision in his encyclical Laudato Si’ published in 2015. It is impressive to note how he is unwilling to be evasive about the ecological threat facing our planet. He writes provocatively: “doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain … our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes.” In the face of this bleak outlook, he courageously challenges the “ethical and cultural decline which has accompanied the deterioration of the environment” and is emphatic that “halfway measures simply delay the inevitable disaster” (§161, §194). His vision has inspired this book’s discussion on the global water crisis, a specific focus that Pope Francis addressed in his encyclical (§27-31).

Pope Francis emphasized that we must engage the “relationship existing between nature and the society in which it lives;” he did this to seek “comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems.” His point here is breathtaking insofar as he integrates the environmental and social components: “we are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental” (§139). He emphasizes a commitment to “justice between generations” that promotes “intergenerational solidarity” and “intragenerational solidarity” (§159, §162). These insights are especially evident concerning the cascading challenges in the global water crisis.

Discourse on ethics and the global water crisis can adopt many lines of constructive inquiry, including media cover stories about running out of water which have highlighted who is at risk, who controls water, how to manage fresh water, and how to address flooding. Running out of water is a recurring theme among scholars as they try to grapple with the context of the global water crisis, often manifestly evident in local public health catastrophes such as occurred when children were poisoned from drinking tap water in Flint, Michigan in the United States. The concept of running dry expresses the looming crisis over water as a very precious resource as a global environmental crisis. The context of this crisis is one of widespread drought that will require both innovative monitoring approaches and an integration with emerging science and social policy, from sustaining groundwater resources to routine water management and water quality oversight such as for schools and basic care. This crisis has multiple complex causes, from climate change to systemic problems with oceans, watersheds, and water remediation, to water trading and global business interest in a consumer society, such as privatization and branding of bottled water. The pervasive concerns around this crisis have generated a new specialty in ethics, referred to as water ethics, that requires a value approach to resolving the worldwide problems. Our era of the Anthropocene is now characterized by this devastating threat that constitutes a defining crisis of the twenty-first century and requires international water governance with a global ethics charter to guide contentious transnational politics.

This disconcerting context of the global crisis demands policy solutions that are grounded in current and emerging science. From developments in membrane technology to breakthroughs in nanotechnology, science must guide policymakers to construct infrastructure both for cities and for nature. However, it requires the interface of science and policy to establish water policy for sustainable development, in order to move from scarcity to sustainable water resources, water systems, and water management from a global perspective, especially in this time of increasing climate change.

As science guides international policy and global governance, there is a pressing need for ethics to address the cascading challenges in the global water crisis, including environmental ethics and engineering ethics. Often, ethics discourse can be aligned constructively and creatively with religious belief to elicit support and inspire advocacy. At the heart of these discussions in religion and ethics lie concerns over justice and whether to construe water as a human right. Not surprisingly, the debate over the right to water for indigenous communities can be unfortunately contentious. In particular, theological ethics from the perspective of many different religions contributes robustly to the debate on justice and the right to water. This ethical discussion over the right to water as a matter of justice highlights the importance of the stewardship of water, especially from a business perspective regarding the economic value of water.

The pivotal issues that arise in the context of the water crisis urge progress in science and policy under the guidance of religion and ethics and underscore the global nature of the problem. The most worrying global issue deals with international acrimony. That is, water scarcity and variability may become a trigger for security across political boundaries, making water politics and diplomacy a pervasive catalyst for peace and war. That acrimony will reflect the nexus between water, land use, food, and energy, each overlapping into the arena of social justice across the world, especially concerning megatrends in agriculture and technology. Also, there will continue to be interminable problems regarding water in multiple settings internationally, such as concerns over the industrial use of water in India, water provision in rural Senegal or in Soweto or in Egypt’s Nile Delta, and the right to water in the Andes, Columbia, or South Africa.

In sum, the sections that shape the book (Context, Science and Policy, Religion and Ethics, and Global Issues) provide a general framework for addressing pivotal issues regarding ethics and the cascading challenges of the global water crisis. Hopefully, this framework will enable the reader to grasp and engage this global ethical imperative to protect the right to water.


Gerard Magill, PhD, was appointed the Vernon F. Gallagher Chair for the Integration of Science, Theology, Philosophy, and Law at Duquesne University, USA, in 2007, and is also a tenured Professor in the Center for Healthcare Ethics at the same institution. He received his PhD from Edinburgh University, UK, and has published over 60 scholarly and professional articles. He is also the author, co-author and editor of 11 books, including a textbook on healthcare ethics.

James Benedict, PhD, is a Scholar-in-Residence in the Center for Healthcare Ethics at Duquesne University, USA, having received his PhD from the same institution in 2015. He has published one book (on transplantation and consent) and numerous study guides and several scholarly and popular articles on ethics and religion. He has for served over 30 years in parish ministry in the Church of the Brethren.


Cascading Challenges in the Global Water Crisis is available now in Hardback at a 25% discount. Enter PROMO25 at checkout to redeem.

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