Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns

Representing Maryknoll Fathers & Brothers, Maryknoll Sisters, and Maryknoll Lay Missioners
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Laudato Si' and Water

Woman carrying water in Laos

World Water Day is March 22. Maryknoll Lay Missioner Flavio Rocha writes from Brazil, where the poor quality of the water (due mainly to residential and industrial sewage contaminating rivers, lakes and nearby ocean waters) received international attention during the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Rocha examines the lessons about water that Pope Francis offers in Laudato Si', the encyclical which is subtitled "On Care For Our Common Home."

The word “water” is cited forty-seven times in Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’. This demonstrates the great value and concern Pope Francis places on water as a sacred and essential part of life. 

“We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7),” the pope says in the second paragraph of Laudato Si’, “our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.”

Water is essential to life but most of us take it for granted. Its crucial importance rarely comes to mind when we reach for a glass of water. Most humans will perish after three days without drinking water. It is so central to maintaining life on our planet that, at times throughout history, water has been used as a tool in military confrontations and has been the source of regional and local conflicts and transboundary disputes.

The care for water is a critical issue of our time. 

Pope Francis identifies five key problems related to water:

  • the lack of access to clean drinking water “indispensable for human life and for supporting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems” [28];
  • the challenges for food production due to droughts and disparities in water availability and “water poverty” [28];
  • the continued prevalence of water-related diseases afflicting the poor [29];
  • the contamination of groundwater [29];
  • the trend toward privatization and commodification of a resource to which the pope describes access to as a “basic and universal human right” [30].

“Greater scarcity of water will lead to an increase in the cost of food and the various products which depend on its use.” Pope Francis says. “Some studies warn that an acute water shortage may occur within a few decades unless urgent action is taken. The environmental repercussions could affect billions of people and species; it is also conceivable that the control of water by large multinational businesses may become a major source of conflict in this century.” [31]

Thirst has no competitor.

Yet, in a world where the majority of people live in cities, we are losing touch with nature and its cycle. As a result, our perception of the value of water and the care for water in our daily lives is losing connection with reality. 

Let's look at one example of access to water in the U.S.

Say that you and your family are in New York City on a hot summer day and you go to a restaurant for lunch. The waiter comes with the menu and asks for your drink order. After walking under a hot sun all morning, the only desire you have is for a glass of cool water, which the waiter promptly brings for the whole table.  When the bill comes, there is no charge for the water. This is not a surprise to you as it is customary in the United States and some other countries to have free tap water in all restaurants.   

You finish your meal at the restaurant and go a theater to see a play. You are in line to buy tickets at a theater when you realize that you have a water bottle in your backpack. You know that many places in the United States have security guards who check bags for dangerous items, which typically include liquids. You decide to throw your water bottle in the trash to avoid any conflict. Surprisingly, the usher tells you that the law in New York State allows people to carry water bottles in public places. Had your water bottle been empty, you could have filled it with tap water at the theater, as the city of New York City pays farmers from upstate to preserve land around sources of water in order to provide chemical-free tap water for people in the city. 

The experience of many people outside of the U.S. is different. 

If you are outside of the United States, chances are you will find that water is valued differently, either because water is not treated for human consumption or because it is more profitable for businesses to sell mineral water. One could spend between five to ten dollars a day just on bottles of water to stay hydrated 

As more cities around the word authorize the privatization of water, access to clean drinking water is becoming more difficult and more expensive.

In their book “Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water” Canadians Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke were some of the first to examine the effects of globalization on the world’s water supply. Barlow and Clarke conclude that wars of the future will be fought over water as they are over oil today. Corporate giants such as Vivendi, which supplies water-related services to 110 million people in more than 100 countries, and corrupt governments will vie for control of a dwindling safe water supply, prompting protests and revolutions from citizens fighting for their right to survive.

The privatization of water is not a new phenomenon.

Communities all over the world have been organizing themselves to resist water privatization – in France, the United States, Brazil, Honduras, Argentina, Israel, Palestine, Turkey, Sudan, South Sudan, Egypt and many other countries.

One of the most well-known struggles involving water happened in Bolivia in 2000 when dozens of people died while protesting against water privatization in the city of Cochabamba. That protest became known as the “Water War.” 

In France, cities are taking back the administration of water distribution after communities object to the high prices charged by private companies.

In the United States, non-government organizations in Michigan, California, and Oregon have pursued legal battles against companies like Nestlé when they attempt to secure ownership to sources of water in their municipalities. 

How did we get to this point?

How did multinational corporations take over a prime source for life on our planet? One answer can be found in documents from the World Bank. This international financial institution has lobbied for changes in international law related to water ownership and the reclassification of water as a commodity to be commercialized.  

Water is sacred.

In Laudato Si’ Pope Francis courageously names the disparities in access, quality, and use of water between the wealthier, industrialized countries and poorer countries as moral, ethical issues.

He calls us to protect the sacredness of water, the element used in the sacrament of Baptism to symbolize the grace of God which cleanses us and give us life. Pope Francis makes clear the need for access to water to be a right without restriction for all people. Water should not be an instrument of suffering for anyone, especially marginalized members of society. “Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity.” [30]

See also:

Photo: Woman carrying buckets of water in Laos by flickr user Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australian Government, licensed in the creative commons 2.0.