ROME – Pope Francis on Sunday asked for universal access to potable water, a resource taken for granted by many, but which over two billion people around the world lack access to.

“Too many brothers and sisters, so very many brothers and sisters have access to too little and perhaps polluted water,” Francis said. “It’s necessary to assure potable water and hygienic services to all.”

His comments came ahead of Monday’s United Nations’ sponsored World Water Day, that highlights the importance of fresh water. This year’s “Valuing water.”

“Sister water,” the pope said, quoting the term used in The Canticle of the Creatures by St. Francis of Assisi, is “not merchandise: it’s a universal symbol and is the source of life and health.”

Doctors and scientists have highlighted regular hand washing with water and soap as a key factor in preventing the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus that has killed over 2.7 million people.

The defense of the human right to water is one of the main objectives of the work of the Catholic Spanish NGO Manos Unidas.

“We support populations so that they have access to water for human consumption throughout all months of the year, through various techniques: From simple drilling to rainwater catchment, through more complex works, according the reality of each place,” said María José Hernando.

“In addition, we support the management of water resources, as well as the protection of ecosystems related to drinking water and we promote hygiene, basic sanitation and, above all, training for the proper management of water infrastructures and for the efficient use of this rare commodity.”

According to a statement released ahead of World Water Day, Manos Unidas has approved 147 projects related to water and sanitation, amounting to $8.7 million, which have directly benefited around 600,000 people.

Similarly, in the past two decades the Salesian religious order have developed more than a hundred projects related to water, with an investment of $3.1 million, which they estimate have benefited more than four million people.

In a statement, they note that the lack of access to clean water kills two million children each year, due to waterborne illnesses.

“The school day of a European girl is equal to the time spent by a minor in bringing water to her family in many places in Africa, America and Asia,” the Salesians said. “Therefore, faced with this situation, Salesian missionaries are committed to improving access to this fundamental good for life. In fact, 25 percent of the projects to fight the coronavirus in the last year have had to do with access to water and adequate sanitation.”

Water has opened the doors for missionaries to talk about hygiene and food; to improve girls’ access to school; to give literacy classes to women; and to avoid illnesses.

According to the United Nations data, three out of ten people in the world lack access to safe drinking services. In addition, more than 80 percent of wastewater resulting from human activities is discharged into rivers or the sea without any treatment, which causes its contamination, which leads them to estimate that by 2050, close to 60 percent of the world’s total population won’t have access to potable water.

From Africa, probably the continent most affected by the lack of water, Spanish missionary Victoria Braquehais said the lack of access to safe water “means that many girls are not in school because they are the ones who take care of a large part of the housework, among which is the supply of water for washing, cooking… In our hospitals we serve many people, especially women who suffer from back problems because from a very young age they have to transport 20-liter drums over long distances.”

In addition, having to travel to distant places at the beginning or at the end of the day, “represents a danger of sexual assaults for girls and young people and, also, destabilizes the home because the woman has to be absent for a long time to get water, because of the distance and because the access points to the water are not enough.”

From her long experience working in Africa, first in the DRC and now in Cameroon, the missionary linked to Manos Unidas has first-hand knowledge of what the absence of this resource means for children.

“The scarcity of water or the consumption of unsafe water is at the base of many diseases, greatly diminishes the quality of life and is one of the main causes of early infant mortality, between zero and five years, because it causes diarrhea, typhoid fevers and favors malaria,” she said.

The Vatican’s Dicastery for Integral Human Development has several campaigns to help provide access to drinkable water, and is working with in collaboration with religious congregations, bishops, Caritas Internationalis and Global Water 2020 to guarantee that more people have access to what the UN has called “blue gold.”

In August 2020 the dicastery sent a letter to bishops around the world, urging them to help ensure “adequate access to water, sanitation and hygiene in all Catholic health care facilities in order to safely treat patients, prevent further spread of COVID-19 and other diseases, and protect health care workers and chaplains,” focusing particularly in helping “respond to a desperate need in some of the health care facilities serving in isolated or impoverished areas of some dioceses.”

In addition, the dicastery is holding five “public conversations” March 22-26, inspired by the 2020 Vatican document “Aqua fons vitae: Orientations on water, symbol of the cry of the poor and the cry of the Earth.”

According to a statement from the dicastery, since the document was released “important negotiations have taken place in the area of so-called ‘hydro-diplomacy’, while the need to protect the oceans and their resources seems to be increasingly understood.”

“The lack of adequate WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) conditions in schools, health facilities and households has been repeatedly identified as a major obstacle in combating the COVID pandemic and Ebola, as well as being a major deficiency in health care,” the dicastery argues. “The management of water -this precious common good- in responsibility and solidarity will undoubtedly play a key role in the recovery of our societies from the ongoing pandemic.”

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