03/22/2012 11:14 am ET Updated May 22, 2012

World Water Day: A Call to Faith

March 22 is World Water Day, and today events the world over focus on water's importance, for life in every form, and for the human spirit.
Few would disagree that WASH -- the acronym that links water, sanitation and hygiene -- is a critical need. Many actors are working hard to fill the glaring gaps that still exist and to meet the ideal of assuring "clean water for all" and decent sanitation. There's some good news: the targets for water supply set by all the United Nations at the turn of millennium for the year 2015 have already been met (though 780 million people still lack safe drinking water). That's something to celebrate and the achievement reflects extraordinary efforts -- providing water to 2 billion people since 1990 is no mean feat. But sanitation goals lag far behind and well over 2 billion people lack access to anything approximating decent toilet facilities. We should never forget the daily challenges this lack means for people, and especially women, whose lives are often in danger as they seek quiet and privacy.

It should come as no surprise that many leading advocates and groups working in the world's most difficult and remote places on water and sanitation draw their inspiration from their religious faith. In virtually every faith tradition, water plays a central role. It cleanses, purifies, sustains, heals and nurtures. It inspires with its beauty and poetry, and it conveys the mystery of life. In interfaith rituals, the shared focus on water is a common bond. WASH is so universal a need that it gives meaning to calls for social justice and equality. Surely few will be unmoved by the gross unfairness of the gap between turning on a faucet, assured that clean water will flow, and imagining the women who walk for miles to carry home a jug of brackish water.

World Water Day has a different theme each year and this year it is food security and agriculture. It's a reminder that the main cause of hunger and famine is drought and that water is vital for all agriculture. Each of us drinks between two and four quarts of water every day, but in truth it is in the food we eat that most water is consumed. Producing a pound of beef consumes about 4,000 gallons of water while producing two pounds of wheat needs 400 gallons of water.

So stressing the links between food and water is a timely reminder. I recall a young man troubled to tears as he listened to a moving presentation about the dire forecasts about world water scarcity. He blurted out that he would henceforth hesitate to take a shower. The expert reassured him that foregoing his shower would not help those dying of thirst, because basic water supply is generally local. But eating meat or imported fruit is a different matter and it is there that we can see most vividly the global links that make water a shared human challenge.

Looking at water through this lens of food underscores the large challenges ahead. We need to press on to assure that all world citizens have clean water and decent sanitation as a matter of right and justice. But when agriculture and power and other dimensions of fresh water use enter the picture, we can see how much more is needed. Sadly, there is no simple key to achieving "water and sanitation for all." Water involves many, indeed virtually all sectors, prominently health, economic livelihoods, gender relations, food security and climate change, and linking them intelligently calls on every resource of imagination, energy, ethics and management. There are exciting new ideas (straws that miraculously clean filthy water) and age old solutions (wells). The solutions need to think big -- meeting the needs of megacities -- and small.
Faith inspired communities are among the leaders on water issues, but their work and potential for greater contributions, in scale and quality, are not well understood. The "policy voice" and the experience of faith actors are rarely reflected at the "policy tables."

In looking ahead, this is a gulf that can and should be bridged.

Many of the most effective advocates (global, national, local) pressing for the right to water are inspired by their religious faith. Countless congregations dig wells, design creative cooperative arrangements to manage them and pioneer sanitation solutions. The complex ethics of water: who should control and who should pay, for example, are pressed by faith actors. In contrast, what may seem just and fair in a slum or village -- free water, for example -- may simply not work in practice. What this calls for is dialogue, exchange, sharing best practices, debating tough issues and forging solutions.

Because water is so central to many faiths, it offers both a starting point for action and a point of engagement between the faith-inspired and secular development communities. Water has a special potential: to build on common ground that all can stand on, in its simplicity and in its complexities. For water truly is life.