Water and the Dignity of Persons

Today is World Water Day, a UN-sponsored annual event intended to focus attention on the importance of fresh water and the sustainable management of fresh water resources. Up to 80 nations experience chronic fresh water shortages. Some are systemic, others intensely localized, but together they affect over 2 billion people, including an estimated 400 million children. In this age of peak everything, from lithium and phosphorous to oil, access to water for drinking, agriculture and sanitation may be the most important resource challenge of all, and a  major source of political instability and armed conflict both within and between nations. Indeed, an article that appeared in Fortune magazine in 2000 predicted that  “Water promises to be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th century: the precious commodity that determines the wealth of nations.”

The Catholic Church has not been silent on the issue. In 2003, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace released a document, titled Water, An Essential Element For Lifethat has been updated three times: in 2006, again in 2009, and then just this month. In the original document, the Council “expressed its hope of a formal recognition of the right to drinking water; and this as a fundamental, inalienable human right based on human dignity.” This call was echoed in 2006, when the Council wrote that

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. In a Message to the Bishops of Brazil in 2004, Pope John Paul II wrote, “as a gift from God, water is a vital element essential to survival, thus everyone has a right to it”.

A human right is generally protected by internationally guaranteed standards that ensure fundamental freedoms for individuals and communities. It principally concerns the relationship between the individual and the State. In this regard, governmental obligations vis-à-vis the right can be broadly categorized as: to respect it, protect it and fulfill it.

The 2006 update to Water, An Essential Element For Life also “expressed the hope that a culture would be promoted to value, respect and consider water not as a commodity but a good destined for everyone.” In the 2012 update, the Council notes that along with the principle of solidarity and subsidiarity, a sense of urgency must now emerge, noting that “Today – amidst a violent economic crisis also linked to the irresponsible exploitation of natural resources, the unhinging of finance from the real economy and of profit from sustainability – it is time to make an assessment of the current urgent situation and to outline effective solutions for the problems left open.”

What is needed, says the Council, is a set of networked governing institutions that “will guarantee everyone everywhere a regular and sufficient access to water.” Important tasks for those institutions include fostering scientific cooperation and the transfer of technology, promoting managerial and administrative cooperation, developing measures to protect against corruption and pollution, and the creation of effective subsidiary authorities at the regional and cross-border level.

Finally, the Council reiterates,

Humanity received the mission from God to take care of and administer the environment, water and the other resources wisely, which are “common goods” and, as such, contribute to the “world common good” for whose realization suitable institutions are essential. These institutions should take it upon themselves to guarantee the universal destination of goods on the global level. In fact, the social doctrine of the Church bases the ethics of property relations regarding the goods of the earth on the biblical perspective which indicates the creation as a gift of God to all human beings: “God intended the earth with everything contained in it for the use of all human beings and peoples. Thus, under the leadership of justice and in the company of charity, created goods should be in abundance for all in like manner. Whatever the forms of property may be, as adapted to the legitimate institutions of peoples, according to diverse and changeable circumstances, attention must always be paid to this universal destination of earthly goods. In using them, therefore, man should regard the external things that he legitimately possesses not only as his own but also as common in the sense that they should be able to benefit not only him but also others”.

The right to use earthly goods, including the use of water, is a natural, inviolable right with universal value because it is due to every human being. It must be protected and made effective through appropriate laws and institutions.

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  • Julian Klee

    Thank you for this post. It’s so easy to take clean water for granted here in North America– not just for drinking but for bathing–that the sacramental importance can get lost on us. We’re poorer for it. I remember traveling years ago in certain backwaters of South Asia, where clean water is at a premium, and Biblical references to springs of living water and sprinkling with clean water and so forth became a rich source of devotional contemplation. (A worthy summary of such references can be found here: http://www.earthcareonline.org/water_in_the_bible_032908.pdf ).

    PS — My Lenten pledge this year was to drink only water, clear and clean, for the 40 plus days. It’s a wonderful way to contemplate the related Scriptures. I recommend it.

    • Mark Gordon

      Thanks, Julian. That’s a wonderful Lenten discipline. Can I borrow it next year? :-)

  • Bruce in Kansas

    Thanks for the post. I’ll be reminding people to have a happy World Water Day and to be grateful for the gift of clean water!