Laudato Si' and Water: The Vatican's Encyclical Letter and Global Water Challenges

06/18/2015 10:18 am ET | Updated Jun 18, 2016
Peter H. Gleick

The official text of the much-anticipated Vatican's Encyclical Letter, "Laudato Si'" ("On Care for our Common Home") was released today. While considerable attention is being devoted to the sections of Pope Francis's new Encyclical related to the threats of climate change, the letter also tackles many other environmental challenges, including biodiversity, food, and especially the critical issue of freshwater. Woven throughout is attention to the social and equity dimensions of these challenges and a deep concern for the poor.

The water sections of the Encyclical Letter focus on the disparities in access, quality, and use of water between the wealthier, industrialized parts of the world and poorer populations. It notes that in many parts of the world, exploitation of water is exceeding natural resource limits - the problem of "peak water" - while still failing to satisfy the needs of the poorest.

"The exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits and we still have not solved the problem of poverty." (Section 27)

The Encyclical identifies several key water problems including the lack of access to clean drinking water "indispensable for human life and for supporting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems" (section 28), the challenges for food production due to droughts and disparities in water availability and "water poverty" (section 28), the continued prevalence of water-related diseases afflicting the poor (section 29), contamination of groundwater (section 29), and the trend toward privatization and commodification of a resource the Vatican describes as an "basic and universal human right" (section 30).

The Letter also expresses concern for the inefficient and wasteful use of water in both rich and poor regions:

"But water continues to be wasted, not only in the developed world but also in developing countries which possess it in abundance"

and it decries the risk that the

"control of water by large multinational businesses may become a major source of conflict in this century" (section 31).

In the context of climate change, the Letter notes the clear links between a warming planet and threats to water resources and other environmental conditions:

"It [warming] creates a vicious circle which aggravates the situation even more, affecting the availability of essential resources like drinking water, energy and agricultural production in warmer regions, and leading to the extinction of part of the planet's biodiversity." (section 24)

Consistent with the overall theme of the Encyclical is the observation that the poorest suffer the most from water problems:

"One particularly serious problem is the quality of water available to the poor. Every day, unsafe water results in many deaths and the spread of water-related diseases, including those caused by microorganisms and chemical substances. Dysentery and cholera, linked to inadequate hygiene and water supplies, are a significant cause of suffering and of infant mortality." (Section 29)

The Encyclical goes further and notes:

"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. (Section 30, italics in original)."

This framing is consistent with the formal human right to water declared by the United Nations in 2010, linking the right to water with the right to life and well-being. Today, the UN estimates that around 2.5 billion people on the planet still lack access to safe sanitation and 750 million do not have safe drinking water. Worldwide, more people die from unsafe water annually than from all forms of violence, including war.

While progress has been made in cleaning up some water pollution, especially in richer industrialized nations, many water-quality indicators are worsening, not improving, and as populations grow, exposure to some forms of water pollution affects larger and larger numbers of people and watersheds. Even in places like California, hundreds of thousands of people - mostly in low-income communities - are at risk of exposure to water with high concentrations of nitrates because of the failure to protect and clean up groundwater systems contaminated by agricultural chemicals, animal feeding operations, and poor sewage systems.

In order to tackle these challenges, the Encyclical Letter identifies several priorities, but especially for water:

"some questions must have higher priority. For example, we know that water is a scarce and indispensable resource and a fundamental right which conditions the exercise of other human rights. This indisputable fact overrides any other assessment of environmental impact on a region." (section 185)

It also calls for reducing waste and inappropriate consumption, increasing funding to ensure universal access to basic water and sanitation, and increased education and awareness, especially in the "context of great inequity."

The world's water challenges are technical, economic, political, and social issues, but the Vatican Encyclical reminds us that ultimately they are ethical and moral issues as well. This is a valuable and timely reminder.