National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 30, 2003

Global water crisis: a test of solidarity

It is deeply unnerving to realize that at the dawn of the third millennium, one of humankind’s deepest worries is the future of the planet’s fresh water supply. If the water supply -- its degradation and disappearance and the implications for the future -- were given attention commensurate with its importance, our front pages and evening newscasts would daily be devoted to the problem.

In the United States and much of the developed world, it is difficult to get too excited about something that we so easily take for granted. The occasional drought may cause some inconvenience, but the water is there in the tap whenever we need it; there in abundance when we want to water our lawns and plants or wash our cars; swimming pools are full of it. No problem.

There are, however, major problems worldwide, problems so pressing that the United Nations in December launched the Year of Fresh Water 2003 ( And those problems are not just beyond U.S. borders. Excessive and poorly planned development, overuse of rivers, overpumping of underground aquifers, pesticide runoff, all have contributed to serious problems with the U.S. fresh water supply, even if those problems remain short of a general crisis.

According to the United Nations, about 40 percent of the world’s population -- more than 2 billion people -- currently faces water shortages. That number is expected to increase to 5.5 billion, or two-thirds of the world’s population, by 2025.

The numbers are compelling. According to U.N. studies:

  • During the past century, the world population has tripled and water use has increased six fold;
  • Half of the world’s wetlands disappeared during the 20th century;
  • Some rivers no longer reach the sea;
  • Twenty percent of freshwater fish are endangered;
  • Climate change accounts for about 20 percent of the global increase in water scarcity.

The United Nations has set as its goal for the year 2015 reducing by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and without access to sanitation. Those are incredibly ambitious goals that carry with them an enormous price tag.

However, much can be done to conserve and to alter practices that now waste water. Agriculture now consumes about 70 percent of all water. Of that amount, 60 percent is lost because of inefficient irrigation practices.

Overpumping of groundwater -- the depletion of natural underground aquifers -- is a problem created and faced by farmers worldwide. The demand for food is also a demand for water. It takes about 1,000 tons of water to produce a ton of grain.

Overpumping is not just a problem of the developing world. In the United States, farmers are beginning to change irrigation methods because of findings that agriculture is seriously depleting the Ogallala Aquifer that stretches from Nebraska through northwestern Texas.

According to a BBC feature on the world water crisis, one U.N. report predicts that access to water may be the single biggest cause of conflict and war in Africa during the next 25 years. “There is already fierce national competition over water for irrigation and power generation -- most notably in the Nile river basin.” In cases where countries share the resources of rivers and lakes and where populations continue to rise, the competition for control of water could be especially intense.

Similar pressures will be faced by India, Turkey, areas of the Middle East and European cities that are currently pumping groundwater at unsustainable rates.

In March more than 24,000 participants from 182 countries gathered in Kyoto, Japan, for an eight day World Water Forum, the third of its kind. One of the contributors to the conference, which established the goals of halving the proportion of people without secure access to water and sanitation, was the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. The council’s statement, while acknowledging the “critical role” water plays in all aspects of life around the globe, took particular note of the plight of the poor. “Many people living in poverty, particularly in the developing countries, daily face enormous hardship because water supplies are neither sufficient nor safe. Women bear a disproportionate hardship. For water users living in poverty, this is rapidly becoming an issue crucial for life and, in the broad sense of the concept, a right to life issue.”

In the Vatican’s view, the principal problem is not one of scarcity, “but rather of distribution and resources. Access and deprivation underlie most water decisions. Hence linkages between water policy and ethics increasingly emerge throughout the world.”

The Vatican’s justice and peace council would turn the discussion toward a favorite papal expression -- solidarity -- in this case solidarity as “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good, to the good of all and of each individual.”

The document presumes “the effort for a more just social order and requires a preferential attention to the situation of the poor. The same duty of solidarity that rests on individuals exists also for nations: Advanced nations have a very heavy obligation to help the developing people.”

That presumption runs through all the other considerations and approaches to water problems listed in the document. It is the flip side of globalization that merely sees the world as an expanding marketplace. The church, in this case, is convinced that one of the contributing factors to the water supply problem is overuse by producing nations at the expense of less developed countries.

The document shows the side of globalization that considers compassion and “preferential attention to the poor” as significant to solving global problems.

Such an approach will be a hard sell. The concept of common good, apart from the exercise of commerce, has been reduced to a small role in our nation’s politics, and the United States has been especially reluctant of late to join the rest of the world in anything but military enterprises.

Water, though, is essential, and this far into human history we should not need documents to impress on us the need to respect the resource. As history has shown, a supply of fresh water, although amply provided, can be placed in jeopardy. It is worth flexing our ethical and political muscles to begin assuring that the world’s poor will not suffer inordinately from a lack of water and that the earth’s water supply will remain abundant and clean for future generations.

The full text of the Vatican document is available at peace/

National Catholic Reporter, May 30, 2003

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