by Chris Chatteris SJ

‘O water, you have neither taste nor colour, nor aroma; we cannot define you. If we taste you it is without knowing you. You are not just necessary for life: you are life itself.’

These words were penned by Antoine de Saint Exupéry, the celebrated pilot and author of The Little Prince. He was recalling the moment when, having crashed his plane in the Sahara and walked with his co-pilot for many hours to try to find help, they were finally saved by a Bedouin whose first simple act was to give the two thirst-mad men water.

The dramatic incident is an extreme example of how we only really appreciate something we take for granted when we are completely denied it.

In a less dramatic way the people of the Western Cape are having what we could call our ‘Sahara moment’. Up till now we have been living as if the water supply was as vast as it is in countries like Canada. We had forgotten that South Africa is a dry country where it is prudent to be sparing with water use.

As for the warning that human-induced global warming was going to make the Cape drier, well, most of us didn’t get too excited about that. We are now learning, rather late, that the Cape may be different, unique even, but it is still part of the global ecosystem and subject to its shocks and shifts.

Maybe the drought will break; maybe not. The city fathers and mothers will have to find the money to implement the technical solutions of large-scale desalination, re-purification and tapping of the aquifers. But will they be able to get these working soon enough to avoid what is being hyped as ‘day zero’ the day when the taps run dry and we have to truck and ship water into Cape Town?

We will know in February next year. In the meantime, we all know what we have to do: use less.

There is an ethical and even a spiritual urgency about all this – a pressing need to care for the common good and the necessity to summon up the self-sacrifice required to change our behaviour appropriately.

Perhaps Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s example can help us. His experience challenges us to look at water with new eyes, to see it as something precious beyond economics. This is a contemplative challenge. My own little spiritual exercise here is extremely simple. Readers might find it, or some version of it, helpful.

Rainwater which we collect off the roof I pour into clear plastic bottles, purify it with a little chlorine, and allow to stand in the sun on my window sill where it is available for washing and drinking.

It’s a simple practice requiring minimal effort. It doesn’t save huge quantities of water – we have other systems in place where I live to reduce the really big user – flushing. But putting plastic bottles of rainwater on my window sill and allowing the sun to play through them, is not just part of a further purification process (with ultra violet light); it’s a thing of beauty and a focus for reflection and prayer.

It’s a focus for the wonder that Saint Exupéry was trying to express – this liquid is colourless, tasteless and odourless and yet it’s both life-sustaining and beautiful. This simple yet so subtle substance is indeed our ‘Sister Water’ as Saint Francis sang centuries before Saint Exupéry.

And she is fair and lovely beyond the hymning of her and all the poetry about her. If we understand and respect her like a Saint Francis or a Saint Exupéry, then what we need to do will follow, naturally, gracefully and even joyfully.

*Fr Chris Chatteris SJ teaches at St Francis Xavier Seminary in Cape Town