Safe and Clean Water as a Basic Human Right and the Indispensable Role of the Church in the IMBISA Region in the Provision of this Right.
In the Encyclical Laudato Sì Pope Francis speaks of water as a basic human right. “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”[
Whilst this is by no means new in the Church it is also worth recalling that the United Nations (UN) recognizes water as a human right. In its
This paper discusses the issue of clean and safe water as a basic human right and the focus will be in the territory[ of the Inter-Regional Meeting of the Bishops of Southern Africa (IMBISA). In proceeding with the discussion we will look at the current water situation in Southern Africa. Thereafter, we will look at the Church’s doctrine, beginning from Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium and emphasizing all the more that for Christians the provision of safe and clean drinking water is not an option but a duty. The text of major reference will be the Encyclical Letter of Pope Francis, Laudato Sí. The IMBISA Plenary Assembly of 2016 resolved that this Encyclical should be at the centre of all activities of IMBISA for the next foreseeable future. Whilst the focus on the Church’s doctrine is certainly important, this paper will also look at what other bodies, like SADC, are doing or at least aim to do, in order to provide safe and clean water in the region.
- Water situation in the IMBISA region[
The IMBISA region continues to face the challenge of providing water as stipulated above and this remains a pipe dream for many. João Samuel Caholo[, indicates that 100 million people have no access to safe drinking water with a further 150 million with no improved sanitation in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in a total population of 327 million. “Every day, unsafe water results in many deaths and the spread of water-related diseases including those caused by micro-organisms and
chemical substances. Dysentery and cholera, linked to inadequate hygiene and water supplies, are a significant cause of suffering and of infant mortality”[.
The causes of water scarcity are wide and varied. One of the causes of water scarcity has been identified as climate change. Dr. Tomaz Augusto Salamão, former Executive Secretary of SADC, noted that in spite of the fact that the Southern African Region contributes only one percent of greenhouse emissions, the region remains one of the most affected in the world as seen in droughts and floods. These calamities lead to poverty and this may as well lead to conflicts in our region.
Charity Ruzvidzo, writing for the Southern Times, indicates that access to water in SADC remains a growing concern for two reasons namely the growth in the population as well as poor infrastructure. As a result, there are fears that the Region will be dry by 2025. The author goes on to note that the shortage of water was quite evident in 2018 when the Cape Town authorities implemented emergency water rationing to sustain its water by allocating fifty litres per person per day. Apparently, in the United States, as the author continues to observe, the average water use per person is about 300-380 litres per day. The lack of a developed infrastructure has meant that citizens are forced denied clean and safe water for prolonged periods of time. Such infrastructure has not, in some jurisdictions, been developed from colonial periods. Also, leaking water pipes in some areas are clear evidence of the lack of proper and adequate maintenance of water infrastructure.
Furthermore, Charity Ruzvidzo continues to observe that the shortage of water in the SADC region has also led to the spiralling of water bottling companies that have managed to cover the gap left by councils and municipalities to meet the high demand for clean drinking water. This means that this resource has mainly been privatized and yet both the Holy Father and the United Nations have acknowledged this as a right. The question is how can this right be exercised by the poorest in our Region or whose duty is it to make sure that people enjoy this right?
- The Church’s concern on the right to clean and safe water
The Church is painfully aware of the scarcity of water and
At the last Plenary Assembly of IMBISA in Lesotho IMBISA committed itself to the promotion, protection
Indeed, the theme of water is quite present in the Christian religion. Its mention is found in many pages of Sacred Scripture as well as being used in the sacrament of baptism and other Christian celebrations. The first mention of water in Sacred Scripture is seen probably in a negative light when it forms part of the chaos (Gen 1:2) prior to God pronouncing his word on creation. Again we see the devastation brought by water with the flood story (Gen 6-9), as an obstacle to proceeding to the Promised Land as the people of God wait for the miracle at the sea (Ex 15) and the tempest that threatens to engulf Jesus as he is on the boat with his disciples (Mt 8:23-27; Mk 4: 35-41; Lk 8:22-25).
Whilst the damaging effects of water are well known, we have to acknowledge that for the most part, Sacred Scripture and indeed life experience, place a lot of value on the importance of water and its necessity thereof. This is seen in the patriarchal narratives[, the gift of water as the people proceed to the promised land (Ex 17:2-6; Num 20:2-13) and the encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan woman (Jn 4:1-42). In the Psalter, the appreciation of the gift of water is captured in song and this precious resource is clearly acknowledged as coming from God:
You water the land and care for it, enriching it with natural resources. God’s streams are filled with water; people are provided with grain; for it is you who have ordained it so. You drench the furrows in the land; you level the ridges, you soften the soil with showers and bless its crops. (Ps 65: 9-11)
One of the probably lesser known stories in Sacred Scripture which might better illustrate the value of water is the encounter between Isaac and his
Yet, the troubles around the famine and the scarcity of water are not completely resolved. In verse fifteen we learn that all the wells dug by his father’s servants had been blocked by the Philistines, the perennial enemies of Israel. As a result, Isaac is forced to look for an alternative source of water as the servants dig another well. The squabbling though is not resolved as the herdsmen of Gerar squabble about the new well. Next, when another well is discovered there is also a squabble until Isaac moves away from there. Even though the instruction was for him to remain in the land, nevertheless he moves out of the space of the people of Gerar. After this, he digs another well and subsequently we no longer hear of a squabble. The matter is finally settled when he moves on again to Beersheba where he builds an altar and invokes the name of the Lord. His enemies follow him to the place and they sue for peace. As a result a treaty is made and the celebration of the treaty with eating and drinking. We note the speech by the representatives of Abimelek as it begins with the fact that the Lord is with you and concludes too with the fact that Isaac has the Lord’s blessing thus forming an inclusion. Again another well is dug which becomes a memorial of the treaty concluded with Abimelek and his men. Therefore, the problem of the famine, reported in verse one, and the complications afterwards with the fear of Isaac and the fights with the Philistines, are resolved.
The story of Isaac in Gerar reveals four issues about water scarcity;
a. That a famine may cause migration. Indeed, as Pope Francis affirms, “changes in climate change, to which animals and plants and plants cannot adapt, lead them to migrate; this in turn, affects the livelihood of the poor, who are then forced to leave their homes, with great uncertainty for their future and that of their children. There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation” . We know of the evils of xenophobia that have engulfed some parts of the region and the need to manage issues around migration well.
b. The story reveals that famine causes food insecurity. Whilst Isaac harvested a hundredfold, his neighbours seemed to have less and less thus the jealousy which ensued. “…he prospered. He continued to prosper until he was very rich. He had flocks and herds and many servants so that the Philistines envied him”. The text indicates that Isaac had a lot more because he was favoured by God. It is normal even in our region to see food insecurity living side by side with food security with the related conspicuous consumption by the rich.
c. Scarcity of water and the related food insecurity may cause squabbles. Pope Francis greeting the Food and Agriculture Organization Staff of the United Nations in Rome in 2014 had the following words for them; “Water is not free, as we so often think. It is a grave problem that can lead to war”. This is further on emphasized in Laudato Sí as “greater scarcity of water will lead to an increase in the cost of food and various products which depend on its use…it is also conceivable that the control of water by large multinational businesses may become a major source of conflict in this century” . “Once certain resources have been depleted, the scene will be set for new wars, albeit under the guise of noble claims…Politics must pay greater attention to foreseeing new conflicts and addressing the causes which can lead to them” .
d. The importance of making treaties and agreements on water and environmental issues so that all may live in peace. It is important that people who live side by side, some with food security and others suffering from food insecurity come to some form of agreement for peaceful co-existence. Even at the international level, it is important to have treaties on the sharing of resources. “Enforceable international agreements are urgently needed since local authorities are not always capable of effective interventions. Relations between states must be respectful of each other’s sovereignty, but must also lay down mutually agreed means of averting regional disasters which would eventually affect everyone” .
- Towards a solution
The United Nations has sought to put some flesh as to what the resolution on water as a basic human right means in the following manner:
a. Sufficient: The water supply for each person must be sufficient and continuous for personal and domestic uses. These uses ordinarily include drinking, personal sanitation, washing of clothes, food preparation, personal and household hygiene. Each person should have between 50 and 100 litres of water per day to ensure that most basic needs are met and few health concerns arise.
b. Safe: The water required for each personal or domestic use must be safe, therefore free from micro-organisms, chemical substances and radiological hazards that constitute a threat to a person’s health.
c. Acceptable: Water should be of acceptable colour, odour taste for each personal or domestic use.
d. Physically accessible: Everyone has the right to a water and sanitation service that is physically accessible within, or in the immediate vicinity of the household, educational institution, workplace or health institution. The water source has to be within one kilometre of the home and collection time should not exceed thirty minutes.
e. Affordable. Water, and water facilities and services must be affordable for all and that water costs should not exceed three percent of household income.
Worth noting too is that SADC has expressed some commitment to seeing an end to the issues of water scarcity in the region. In the document on
a. Communicating the importance of this resource to the general population. This is so that people may change
b. The importance of education and capacity building as those to be most affected by climate change and subsequently water scarcity are probably yet to be born or just started school. It is important that knowledge of climate change
c. The importance of conducting research on issues of climate change as we do not have all the answers on this complex matter as yet.
d. It is important that various stakeholders participate in such efforts as everyone is impacted by the effects of climate change.
The importance of water advocacy so as to influence policy shifts which need to take place to reflect the pivotal in climate change.
One her part, “the Church has no technical solutions to propose but, as an ‘expert in humanity’, offers to all the teaching of Sacred Scripture on the truth about mankind, and proclaims the Gospel of Love and justice”. The Church may look to the story of the prophet Elisha who had to deal in a practical manner with contaminated water (2 K 3:19-22). In fact, the many technical solutions provided by experts will come to nothing if these have no buy-in from the ordinary people who use or even at times misuse water. Indeed, “any technical solution which science claims to offer will be powerless to solve the serious problems of our world if humanity loses its
- The Church has a duty to make her teaching on the environment more accessible and forming part of the faith formation of the people of God. In the IMBISA Plenary Assembly of 2016, all the IMBISA Episcopal Conferences committed themselves to have Laudato Sí studied and implemented in their jurisdictions. There is thus need to monitor how this is being done in such a way that it reaches all levels of the Church right down to the local Christian community and indeed every household. The Encyclical may assist people to understand water as a right as well as trying to see who really has a duty to see to it that this right is addressed.
- The celebration of earth day should be part of the general annual plan for Dioceses and Parishes. On these occasions, the teaching of the Church on the care and integrity of creation should be presented. This should include all the teachings in Scripture and the Magisterium and also the right of every human being to clean and safe water. In the workshop on Laudato Sí from the IMBISA Assembly in 2016, the SACBC suggested the celebration of creation taking place around the feast of St. Francis of Assisi in October with a novena preceding such a celebration. This could very well be used as a model for the whole IMBISA region
. Theliturgies for the celebration of creation (earth day) should take into consideration the fact that the earth has been wounded and as a result this has led to the scarcity of water. For this reason, a penitential period should be observed. The SACBC has suggested among other things the importance of para-liturgies which may bring a spiritual sense to the importance of creation. It is worth remembering too that the wastage of water is not just limited to the rich but the poor as well. The Namibian Catholic Bishops’ conference (NCBC) and Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference (ZCBC), in noting the fact of water wastage, wish that people be taught how to harness water for irrigation and training people in agricultural methods.
The Church has to encourage political actors to do more in promoting the right to water in the region and to make them aware that it is primarily their duty to make sure that this right is properly addressed. This has already been the commitment of some of our Episcopal Conferences in the region. In fact, the Bishops of Mozambique (CEM) identified this as one of their objectives in the last Plenary Assembly when they committed themselves to the formation of political actors in the Church’s Social Doctrine. Worth noting is that SADC has already made some initiatives in promoting treaties that make the availability of water accessible to countries, especially countries that share
The importance of guarding that safe drinking water does not fall into private interests that are only interested in making profits. The LCBC indicated the importance of putting people first in dealing with a number of priorities in the last workshop. This is another area where the Church, through her formation programs, needs to target those who hold economic power in society. It can no longer be acceptable that when a person has failed to settle the water bill that the first thing that the Water Agency does is to cut the water supply. A lot of work will thus have to be done to sensitise authorities on the basic right to safe and clean water.
The Church in the region has to pay attention to issues of migration which is caused mainly by economic problems at times stemming from food insecurity which in turn is caused by
The fact that both the ecclesiastical and secular sphere consider water as a basic human right is an encouraging convergence. It is quite clear that few people enjoy this right in the IMBISA region. The various ecclesiastical, political, and economic players should do more in treating this matter with the urgency it deserves. For the Church, effective action in this area is demanded from her doctrine and mission. If this is not attended to properly a great number of people in the IMBISA region will continue to suffer from water-borne diseases and enjoy a poorer quality of life as they make do with a poor supply of water. A lack of access to clean and safe water militates against the Church’s teaching that each one of us should be our brother’s and sister’s keeper and indeed that Jesus came that all may have life and have it to the full (Cf. Jn 10:10).
Fr. Dumisani Vilakati IMBISA Pastoral Department