Water, Water, Everywhere, Nor Any Drop to Drink

If one were to look for a single word that most accurately describes CNEWA’s world, I think it would be “diversity.”

CNEWA works on four continents, in languages as diverse as Malayalam, Arabic and Tigrinya, with at least four of the world’s major religions and many ancient and modern cultures. Tragically, many places in CNEWA’s world are also the scene of brutal conflicts and wars.

One of the more silent crises that confronts almost all the places in CNEWA’s world is the condition of water. In his Canticle of the Sun, St. Francis of Assisi prays: “Be praised, My Lord, through Sister Water. She is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.” It is perhaps the very humility and ubiquity of water that makes it so easily overlooked — to our great peril!

Last week, the United Nations held a global Water Conference (22-24 March). António Guterres, the U.N. secretary general, opened the conference stating that “water is humanity’s lifeblood.” Clean, safe drinking water is necessary for civilization. And accessibility to potable, or drinking water, is the sixth of the U.N.’s 17 Sustainable Developments Goals (S.D.G.s).

The conference noted that 2 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water; 3.6 billion people do not have access to managed sanitation that is safe. The U.N. has estimated the number of people facing water scarcity will increase from 930 million people in 2016 to up to 2.4 billion people by 2050.

Lack of access to safe water is a leading risk factor for many illnesses, including cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid and polio. It also exacerbates malnutrition and, in particular, stunts child development.

According to a 2019 Global Burden of Disease study, 1.2 million people died prematurely in 2017 as a result of unsafe water. To put this into context: This was three times the number of homicides worldwide in 2017 and equal to the number of road accident deaths globally that same year.

While the availability of water may vary from country to country and climate to climate, access to safe drinking water is a global problem. As such, water is a subset of the larger issue of the degradation of the overall environment. Religious leaders, such as Pope Francis in his encyclical “Laudato sí,” and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople have again and again insisted on the religious and moral obligation we humans have for maintaining a habitable planet.

While water may be a subset of ecological conversion and responsibility, it very well may be among the top priorities. As Archbishop Gabriele Caccia, the representative of the Holy See to the United Nations, noted in his address to the conference: “Water is a source of life. Therefore, recognizing it as a primary good that should be available to all, impels us to develop and implement adequate policies that ‘ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.’ Such policies must be rooted in the recognition that the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation are inextricably related to the right to life and human dignity.”

Collectively, U.N. member states commit themselves to accomplish the goals outlined in the sixth S.D.G. by 2030:

  • Achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all
  • Achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all
  • Improve water quality by reducing pollution and minimizing the release of hazardous chemicals into the water supply
  • Increase water-use efficiency and ensure sustainable withdrawals and supply of fresh water to address scarcity
  • Implement integrated water-resource management, including those that transcend international borders
  • Protect and restore water-related ecosystems including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes
  • Expand international cooperation and build capacity in developing countries for water- and sanitation-related programs.

While a great deal of emphasis is understandably laid on safe drinking water, all the water on the planet — salt and fresh — forms part of one integral system. An attempt to improve the situation of the planet’s water must consider the entire water system of the globe. As Pope Francis and the U.N. both recognize, water is not a luxury and protecting it is not an option. Ultimately it affects us all — from the CNEWA headquarters office in New York to the poorest person in Ethiopia or war-torn Ukraine.

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