| February 19, 2010 Print

“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.”

-Pope John Paul II, Message on the 2003 World Day of Peace

Access to clean water is a fundamental human right and is essential to all life on this planet. Globally, more than 1 billion people, about a sixth of the world’s population, lack access to safe, clean drinking water.

When water is defined as a tradable commodity and source of profit, rather than a fundamental human right, it is the poor who lose out. Problems of pollution, privatization and dams have unjustly made water a luxury for too many members of the global community.

While countless waterways have been poisoned, used as dumping grounds for toxic chemicals and waste, global warming, also triggered by pollution, affects our water supply in a more subtle, but no less menacing form.

In wetter climates, this means more rain and often flooding. In hotter climates, rainfall is declining and deserts are expanding. As agriculture depends upon rainfall, the livelihoods of many of the world’s poorest people are at risk.

Large dams, pushed as a solution for clean energy and sustainable development, have grave social and environmental costs. As many as 40 million to 80 million people worldwide, mostly poor farmers and indigenous people, have been displaced by dams, .

As a direct result, many suffer cultural decline, loss of livelihood, decreased access to water, deterioration in overall health and political repression when they demand their rights. At the same time, effects on the environment include the loss of fisheries, decreased water quality, production of greenhouse gases and a decline in the fertility of farmlands and forests.

In response to the increasing scarcity of safe, clean water, corporations and multilateral institutions, such as the World Bank, have sought to push the privatization of water, arguing that setting a price to water will lead to increased efficiency and conservation.

Nonetheless, water privatization schemes around the world have an abysmal history of failure, including skyrocketing prices, water quality problems, deteriorating service and a loss of local control.

As water becomes a commodity, rather than a right, the poor suffer, unable to afford access. Two million people die every year because of water-related illnesses contracted from lack of access to safe, clean drinking water and adequate sanitation.

Water is often referred to as “blue gold,” and it is anticipated that future wars will be about obtaining water. Although our planet, like our bodies, is more water than land, only 2.5 percent of that water is fresh water.

As deserts expand, garbage and pollutants are dumped in our waterways, and rivers dry up or are dammed up, water distribution is coming more and more to reflect the vast inequalities in income distribution in our world with the poor pushed even further toward the margins of society.

Yet beyond its environmental, biological and geopolitical significance, water has profound religious symbolism. In the moment of our baptism, we are reborn and reconciled with the Divine through water. Water is, above all, a symbol of life and hope that in its sanctity must be protected and shared as the common heritage of humankind and our world.