In his 2019 message for World Water Day, observed each year on March 22, Pope Francis stated that water “is an essential good for the balance of ecosystems and the survival of humankind.”
“It is necessary to manage it and to care for it so that it is not contaminated or lost,” he added.
World Water Day was founded in 1993 by UN-Water, an organization that coordinates the United Nations’ work on water and sanitation. Its purpose is to focus attention on the importance of safe, clean water.
According to UN-Water, 2.2 billion people around the world live without access to safe water. In addition, more than 700 children under 5 years of age die every day from diarrheal disease linked to unsafe water and poor sanitation.
We do not have to travel halfway around the world to witness how access to clean drinking water is limited, especially in communities where people of color or the economically depressed reside. Look no further than Flint, Mich., where city officials switched its water supply in 2014 to cut costs.
Instead, the new water supply from the Flint River caused pipes to corrode and taint drinking water with lead.
The cost-cutting measure led to toxic drinking water that sickened thousands of Flint residents, potentially leaving them with lifelong health problems. A majority of Flint residents are Black and 40% of its residents live in poverty.
Another water crisis, this one in Jackson, Miss., is still ongoing. Following a rainstorm last month, Jackson, the largest city in Mississippi, experienced about 80 water main breaks. A month after the storm, Jackson residents, 80% of whom are Black, still do not have safe drinking water.
“I think something that it is not often talked about, but is a reality, is that there are equity questions in terms of how infrastructure is supported, in terms of how cities are supported,” Jackson’s mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, told PBS Newshour’s John Yang March 9.
Lumumba was responding to remarks by the state’s lieutenant governor, who blamed city officials for not collecting water bills from residents or maintaining its infrastructure. Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann told the Mississippi Free Press on March 1 that the city had not made repairs on its water system since the last white mayor, Kane Ditto, was in office.
However, Ditto’s successor, Harvey John Jr., the city’s first Black mayor, spent over $200 million on water and sewer infrastructure improvements over 12 years, the Mississippi Free Press reported.
Whether in our urban communities across America or in the small villages around the world, the scarcity of safe drinking water is typically experienced by the poor and neglected, those whom Jesus called “one of these least ones” (Jn 25:45).
This year’s World Water Day theme, “Valuing Water,” reminds us that this important message also extends to valuing our brothers and sisters. Care for water and care for people must go hand in hand.
The connection between human life and our natural resources is one message Pope Francis has made many times. As he stated in his 2019 World Water Day address, ending water scarcity “will be possible if we join forces in the search for the common good, when the other has a real face.”