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Pope Francis is thirsty

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Pope Francis’ much-anticipated encyclical, “Laudato Si’” (“On Care for our Common Home,”) was a problem for climate change skeptics and a gift to those who fear the impact of climate change, especially on the poor.

These two camps seem to be worlds apart. Yet a thread that runs through the encyclical is something that everyone can agree on because it is the thread that runs through life itself. As the pope wrote in his encyclical, it is “indispensable for human life and for supporting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems,” and that is water.

{mosads}Water is also the single symbol shared by all religions. Not just Catholics — but all Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Baha’i, Zoroastrians, Shinto, Daoists and many more have relied for millennia on water to perform ancient rituals – from cleansing to blessing. 

Throughout Laudato Si, water runs deep. Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, a research and policy group dedicated to solving the world’s most pressing water problems, took a comprehensive look at the encyclical and the threat of what the pope calls “water poverty”:

  • “Everyday, unsafe water results in many deaths and the spread of water-related diseases,” wrote the pope, “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.”
  • Reduced food production is a threat due to droughts and disparities in water availability.
  • Groundwater contamination and waste is “in the developed world but also in developing countries which possess [water] in abundance.”
  • The trend toward privatization and commodification of water threatens what the pope calls a “basic and universal human right,” and warns that “control of water by large multinational businesses may become a major source of conflict in this century.”

For now, more people die from the lack of access to safe water and sanitation than from all forms of violence, including war. It accounts for 50 percent of all under-nutrition, 50 different diseases and illnesses, and fills half the world’s hospital beds.

On the day the pope arrives on American soil, some 663 million people around the world will not have a clean glass of water to drink and 2.5 billion people will lack the dignity of basic sanitation – a staggering one sixth of the global population.

On the day the pope arrives on American soil, hundreds of thousands of Californians, most in low-income communities, will be at risk of exposure to water with high concentration of nitrates due to the failure to protect and clean up groundwater systems contaminated by agricultural chemicals, animal waste from commercial operations, and poor sewage systems. Our western states will continue to suffer from drought.

The global water crisis is really a global pandemic that undercuts so much of the good work done around the world. We spend billions of dollars on bednets and medicines, girls’ education and gender rights. But when communities have no access to safe water and sanitation, breeding grounds for malaria-carrying mosquitoes increase. Immune-suppressed HIV patients take antiretroviral drugs with dirty water. Girls drop out of school when they reach puberty. Women risk violence and rape at night, by simply seeking a bit of privacy and dignity in a deserted field, the only “bathroom” they have. How could it have been possible to quickly stop the spread of deadly Ebola when family members who came in contact with victims or the deceased could not sufficiently wash their hands?

But for most of us, on the day the pope arrives on American soil, we’ll forget the economic and life-threatening impact of not having safe water because it flows from our taps in abundance.

The pope’s encyclical calls for reducing water waste, increasing funding to ensure universal access to basic water and sanitation, and increased education and awareness, especially in the “context of great inequity.” “Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water,” he wrote, “because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity. “(italics in original)

Absent in solving the global water pandemic is not technology, but commitment, yet solving it will affect all of us for the better. Families, in which women won’t have to walk hours everyday to find water, will be better educated, healthier and more productive. Whole countries will benefit, and so will we when we live in a world in which disease is better contained, poverty is reduced, new trade partners are introduced, and we engage in a kind of diplomacy that military commanders agree is indispensible to global and U.S. security.

On the day the pope arrives on American soil, his vision for a better world requires a clean glass of water for all. Because no matter ones faith, this pope has reminded all of us that water isn’t just about pipes and politics. Water is about life itself.

Hunter is senior pastor of Northland Church, one of the largest Evangelical churches in Florida. He is an original signer of the Evangelical Climate Initiative. Barnett, a former network news producer, is a strategic communications consultant and the founder of Impact-Communications and Faiths for Safe Water.


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