Water: An Essential Resource

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Water is an essential element for life. Many people must confront daily the situation of an inadequate supply of safe water and the very serious resulting consequences. The intention of this paper is to present some of the human, social, economic, ethical and religious factors surrounding the issue of water.

The Holy See offers these reflections on some of the key issues in the agenda of the 3rd World Water Forum (Kyoto, 16th-23rd March 2003), in order to contribute its voice to the call for action to correct the dramatic situation concerning water. The human being is the centre of the concern expressed in this paper and the focus of its considerations.

The management of water and sanitation must address the needs of all, and particularly of persons living in poverty. Inadequate access to safe drinking water affects the well being of over one billion persons and more than twice that number have no adequate sanitation. This all too often is the cause of disease, unnecessary suffering, conflicts, poverty and even death. This situation is characterized by countless unacceptable injustices.


Water plays a central and critical role in all aspects of life – in the national environment, in our economies, in food security, in production, in politics. Water has indeed a special significance for the great religions.

The inadequacy in the supply and access to water has only recently taken centre stage in global reflection as a serious and threatening phenomenon. Communities and individuals can exist even for substantial periods without many essential goods. The human being, however, can survive only a few days without clean, safe drinking water.

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.

Water is a major factor in each of the three pillars of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental. In this framework, it is understood that water must meet the needs of the present population and those of future generations of all societies. This is not solely in the economic realm but in the sphere of integral human development. Water policy, to be sustainable, must promote the good of every person and of the whole person.

Water has a central place in the practices and beliefs of many religions of the world. This significance manifests itself differently in various religions and beliefs. Yet two particular qualities of water underlie its central place in religions: water is a primary building block of life, a creative force; water cleanses by washing away impurities, purifying objects for ritual use as well as making a person clean, externally and spiritually, ready to come into the presence of the focus of worship.


The principle water difficulty today is not one of absolute scarcity, but rather of distribution1 and resources. Access and deprivation underlie most water decisions. Hence linkages between water policy and ethics increasingly emerge throughout the world.

Respect for life and the dignity of the human person must be the ultimate guiding norm for all development policy, including environmental policy2. While never overlooking the need to protect our eco-systems, it is the critical or basic needs of humanity that must be operative in an appropriate prioritisation of water access. Powerful international interests, public and private, must adapt their agendas to serve human needs rather than dominate them.

The human person must be the central point of convergence of all issues pertaining to development, the environment and water. The centrality of the human person must thus be foremost in any consideration...
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