March 22nd is World Water Day – the day that the international community commemorates one of our most important natural resources. Sadly, the reality of water issues in the world is sobering. Millions of people suffer daily due to the lack of access to basic water and sanitation. Women and children suffer the most. For example, women and girls are prevented from attending school because of responsibilities to collect water. To put it in even more stark contrast, “every 20 seconds, a child dies as a result of poor sanitation. That’s 1.5 million preventable deaths each year.”
Water topics are increasingly getting attention in the Church, thanks to the work of women religious, Catholic movements, and scholars. My friend and fellow theologian, Christiana Z. Peppard, has an excellent new book (one that is great for both classrooms and parish groups) out on: Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Water Crisis.
It may surprise some to learn that the Catholic Church has a lot to say on the topic of water justice. This week, I’ve been lucky to be with a group of college students from USA and Canada for a study session at the UN sponsored by the International Movement of Catholic Students.
The following are just a few selections from Catholic social teaching that I shared with the students on the topic of water. One key thing to see is that according to CST (and human rights law), water is a right and not a simple commodity. All of us, then, have a corresponding responsibility to work for millions without access to safe water.
” 484. The principle of the universal destination of goods also applies naturally to water, considered in the Sacred Scriptures as a symbol of purification (cf. Ps 51:4; Jn 13:8) and of life (cf. Jn 3:5; Gal 3:27). “As a gift from God, water is a vital element essential to survival; thus, everyone has a right to it”. Satisfying the needs of all, especially of those who live in poverty, must guide the use of water and the services connected with it. Inadequate access to safe drinking water affects the well-being of a huge number of people and is often the cause of disease, suffering, conflicts, poverty and even death. For a suitable solution to this problem, it “must be set in context in order to establish moral criteria based precisely on the value of life and the respect for the rights and dignity of all human beings” ”
“485. By its very nature water cannot be treated as just another commodity among many, and it must be used rationally and in solidarity with others. The distribution of water is traditionally among the responsibilities that fall to public agencies, since water is considered a public good. If water distribution is entrusted to the private sector it should still be considered a public good. The right to water, as all human rights, finds its basis in human dignity and not in any kind of merely quantitative assessment that considers water as a merely economic good. Without water, life is threatened. Therefore, the right to safe drinking water is a universal and inalienable right. ”
” Water, a common good of the human family, constitutes an essential element for life; the management of this precious resource must enable all to have access to it, especially those who live in conditions of poverty, and must guarantee the liveability of the planet for both the present and future generations. Access to water is in fact one of the inalienable rights of every human being, because it is a prerequisite for the realization of the majority of the other human rights, such as the rights to life, to food and to health.
For this reason, water “cannot be treated as just another commodity among many, and it must be used rationally and in solidarity with others…. The right to water… finds its basis in human dignity and not in any kind of merely quantitative assessment that considers water as a merely economic good. Without water, life is threatened. Therefore, the right to safe drinking water is a universal and inalienable right” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, n. 485). World Water Day is a precious opportunity to encourage the international community to identify effective ways to permit this basic human right to be promoted, protected and enjoyed.”
“…the sustainable management of water becomes a social, economic, environmental and ethical challenge that involves not only institutions but the whole of society. It should be faced in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, that is, through the adoption of a participatory approach that involves both the private sector and above all the local communities; the principle of solidarity, a fundamental pillar of international cooperation, which requires a preferential option to the poor; the principle of responsibility to the present generation and those to come, from which derives the consequent need to re-examine the models of consumption and production, often unsustainable with regard to the use of water resources. ”
Water: An Essential Element for Life, An Update* (March 2006)
“The problem of water scarcity and water deprivation is experienced most dramatically by men and women living in poverty and often in the poorest countries. However, the concept of “family of nations” recalls that responsibility for the destiny of the less favored countries rests also with those more richly blessed…”
“Water is a natural resource vital for the survival of humanity and all species on earth. As a good of creation, water is destined for all human beings and their communities…The common good is understood as the social conditions that allow people to reach their full human potential. Water is a universal common good, a common good of the entire human family. Its benefits are meant for all and not only for those who live in countries where water is abundant, well managed and well distributed. This natural resource must be equitably at the disposal of the entire human family…”
“Water is much more than just a basic human need. It is an essential, irreplaceable element to ensuring the continuance of life. Water is intrinsically linked to fundamental human rights such as the right to life, to food and to health. Access to safe water is a basic human right..”
“The vital importance of water to humanity means also that it is a strategic factor for the establishment and maintenance of peace in the world. Water is a dimension of what is referred to today as resource security…
Solutions for access to safe water and sanitation should express a preferential love and consideration for the poor. It is for those that the water issue is crucial for life. The water issue is truly a right to life issue. It is mainly they who are deprived of the right to water, to health and to food. The human family must be served, not exploited. The primary objective of all efforts must be the well-being of those people – men, women, children, families, communities – who live in the poorest parts of the world and suffer most from any scarcity or misuse of water resources.”