Home » Environment » Defending the right to water

Water station in Taita-Taveta County, Kenya. Photo by Jerry Fleury.

Maryknoll lay missioner Flávio Rocha first became interested in water issues in 2007 after Brazilian Bishop Dom Flávio Cappio protested with a hunger strike against the diversion of the Sâo Francisco River.

That megaproject, said Bishop Cappio at the time, would threaten the river and the millions of people who depended on it to make a living. “I believed in his words,” Flávio said, “and after all these years we can see that he was right.”

Because of his interest in water issues, Flávio went back to school and earned a doctorate in social science at the Catholic University of São Paulo and a post-doctorate degree from the University of São Paulo, both focusing on water privatization.

“Unfortunately,” he says, “I have seen the situation exacerbated in many parts of the world. Rivers are becoming more and more polluted and are being overexploited, making this basic human right more and more difficult to obtain for the poor.”


Water as a right

On this World Water Day, let us reflect on the importance of the right to water. Why do we even need to talk about it? We need to talk about it because, unfortunately, this right has been increasingly threatened or ignored amid various socioeconomic and political challenges in our world.

The right to water has not always been a high priority within the international community. It was not included in the landmark Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, for example—probably because access to water was assumed as a given that would be never be threatened. It was only in the first decade of this millennium that the United Nations addressed this topic seriously. The Bolivian government first presented a resolution for the right to water at the UN. Although it was defeated initially, Bolivia presented it again in 2010. On July 28 of that year, the UN General Assembly adopted the resolution recognizing access to clean and safe drinking water and sanitation as a human right.

The right to water was first mentioned in international documents issued by various international conferences. Those conferences first addressed the need to protect the right to water for vulnerable groups such as women, children, and people with disabilities. Of course, there are other vulnerable groups who also need to have this right protected, such as refugees living in camps or the urban homeless. In addition, lack of water has also been a cause of suffering for many indigenous people who have been expelled from their lands by governments who prioritize the desires of agro-business and corporations.

Consequences of water shortage

The lack of water can have huge consequences in the lives of poor people. Studies show that, in many places around the world, it is still common for women have to walk many miles to reach a water source and then carry it back home on their heads because they do not have access to water in rural areas. Children without access to clean water often get sick and sometimes die after drinking contaminated water.

Another related problem is that politicians have used their ability to control access to water to maintain their power in many parts of the word. This happened in the Northeast of Brazil, a semiarid region inhabited by more than 20 million people. In this region the Catholic Church has done tremendous work, together with other organizations, to make water accessible to the local people, breaking a centuries-old chain of oppression.

Water is a common good that belongs to all living beings, but it is being threatened by a growing water market that sees water as a profitable “product.” Private water companies, often monopolies, are present in many places around the world. Their presence and prevalence raise the question of how governments will maintain power over this natural resource that is essential for each country’s sovereignty.

Pope Francis has recognized this critical issue of our times, writing in his encyclical Laudato Si’, “Even as the quality of available water is constantly diminishing, in some places there is a growing tendency, despite its scarcity, to privatize this resource, turning it into a commodity, subject to the laws of the market. Yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. 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.”

As the pope further explains, it is not enough for water to be accessible, but it needs to be clean and drinkable as well. The commodification of water usually makes it even more inaccessible, especially for the poor. Several countries have experimented with privatizing water, and their examples indicate that once water is privatized, it becomes unaffordable for the poor.

What can be done?

The World Health Organization says that the minimum quantity of water necessary for a human being is 100 liters (about 26 gallons) per day. Many groups are already discussing the idea of having governments providing this quantity of water per capita for free.

Putting this into practice could be very expensive at first, but considering how much governments will save on hospital expenses caused by water shortages, it could be a good solution. Also considering that some governments spend billions of dollars subsidizing the oil industry and agrobusiness, governmental provision of basic quantities of water does sound like a much better idea.

All people of good will must affirm that when the right to water is denied, many other rights are denied along with it, such as health. This is especially true for those who are already vulnerable and marginalized in our societies.

Maryknoll lay missioner Flávio José Rocha wrote this post for the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns

Flávio José Rocha
Flávio José Rocha is a Maryknoll lay missioner in João Pessoa, Brazil, whose ministries include alternative health, theater of the oppressed and research on water privatization and pollution in Brazil.