On Friday, February 24, 2017, Pope Francis addressed the Vatican Workshop on the Human Right to Water in Rome. He insisted that the right to safe drinking water is a basic human right requiring deliberate action and a central place in the framework of public policy. “The questions concerning the right to water are not marginal, but basic and pressing,” the Pope said.
In attendance was SGPIA Professor Michael Cohen, whose extensive work on urban development, including his recent tenure on the UN Habitat III Policy Unit on Municipal Finance, has made him a world renowned expert on the subject. “I had the opportunity to participate in this meeting and was impressed by the organizers’ insistence on the need for dialogue between different perspectives and interests. Their message was that “the process was the outcome,” a noteworthy observation to hear coming from the US these days,” Professor Cohen reported, going on to note, “Pope Francis made a very strong statement about the ethical need to affirm the human right to water. He was particularly focused on the number of children dying each day as a result of the lack of access to clean water and the need for collective action to address the obstacles to access to water.”
In his statement, the Pope quoted United Nations statistics, highlighting the urgency and scale of the problem. “The statistics provided by the United Nations are troubling, nor can they leave us indifferent. Each day a thousand children die from water-related illnesses and millions of persons consume polluted water. These facts are serious; we have to halt and reverse this situation. It is not too late, but it is urgent to realize the need and essential value of water for the good of mankind.”
The outcome of the workshop was a final statement signed by Pope Francis and co-signed by the attendees, including Professor Cohen. In it, the group outlined the the scope of the problem, and their priorities in addressing these concerns.
Echoing the deeper concerns of Pope Francis himself with regard to the immediate dangers and effects of climate change, the statement affirms that, “production models focused on fossil fuels are directly responsible for global warming. Climate change, like water scarcity, is a consequence of human action.” It goes on to expand on the relationship between water scarcity and climate change, declaring, “the socio-environmental crisis that we face arises from environmentally irresponsible human action that has resulted in spreading socio-environmental injustice, increasing inequality and poverty, and a lack of adequate food supply. Throughout the world, the lack of access to safe water and the pollution of water sources seriously and increasingly affects quality of life, particularly women, the poorest, and the most vulnerable.”
Framing the right to water as a human right, the group calls for a co-ordinated, multi-disciplinary international response to ensure access to safe water sources around the globe. Specifically, the group called for: global, state and local policies to maintain public control of common assets such as water and ecosystems; legal protections for those who fight for the right to water and water protection; participatory development models for communities affected most by water scarcity and inadequate sanitation; and worldwide “changes in lifestyle, production and consumption, as well as the development of renewable and clean energy.”
For the Pope, however, the right to water is not only an ethical issue, but also a question of morality. “The Book of Genesis tells us that water was there in the beginning (cf. Gen 1:2). In the words of Saint Francis of Assisi, it is “useful, chaste and humble” (cf. Canticle of the Creatures). The questions that you are discussing are not marginal, but basic and pressing. Basic, because where there is water there is life, making it possible for societies to arise and advance. Pressing, because our common home needs to be protected. Yet it must also be realized that not all water is life-giving, but only water that is safe and of good quality,” he said.
The workshop, entitled “The human right to water: An interdisciplinary focus and contributions on the central role of public policies in water and sanitation management” was organised by the Vatican Pontifical Academy of Sciences and La Catedra del Dialogo y la Cultura del Encuentro and held on Feb 23 – 24 in Rome, Italy.