The Church has written many documents relating to social justice and the provision of water. The Justice and Peace Office invite you to read some key excerpts below. If you would like to read more, each document is available online, in full, and at no cost.
Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church – outline of the social teaching of the Church in relation to water.
 The principle of the universal destination of goods also applies naturally to water, considered in the Sacred Scriptures as a symbol of purification (cf. Ps 51:4; Jn 13:8) and of life (cf. Jn 3:5; Gal 3:27). “As a gift from God, water is a vital element essential to survival; thus, everyone has a right to it”. Satisfying the needs of all, especially of those who live in poverty, must guide the use of water and the services connected with it. Inadequate access to safe drinking water affects the well-being of a huge number of people and is often the cause of disease, suffering, conflicts, poverty and even death. For a suitable solution to this problem, it “must be set in context in order to establish moral criteria based precisely on the value of life and the respect for the rights and dignity of all human beings”.
 By its very nature water cannot be treated as just another commodity among many, and it must be used rationally and in solidarity with others. The distribution of water is traditionally among the responsibilities that fall to public agencies, since water is considered a public good. If water distribution is entrusted to the private sector it should still be considered a public good. The right to water, as all human rights, finds its basis in human dignity and not in any kind of merely quantitative assessment that considers water as a merely economic good. Without water, life is threatened. Therefore, the right to safe drinking water is a universal and inalienable right.
Catechism of the Catholic Church on Respect For the Human Person
1929 Social justice can be obtained only in respecting the transcendent dignity of man. the person represents the ultimate end of society, which is ordered to him:
What is at stake is the dignity of the human person, whose defense and promotion have been entrusted to us by the Creator, and to whom the men and women at every moment of history are strictly and responsibly in debt.35
1930 Respect for the human person entails respect for the rights that flow from his dignity as a creature. These rights are prior to society and must be recognized by it. They are the basis of the moral legitimacy of every authority: by flouting them, or refusing to recognize them in its positive legislation, a society undermines its own moral legitimacy.36 If it does not respect them, authority can rely only on force or violence to obtain obedience from its subjects. It is the Church’s role to remind men of good will of these rights and to distinguish them from unwarranted or false claims.
1931 Respect for the human person proceeds by way of respect for the principle that “everyone should look upon his neighbor (without any exception) as ‘another self,’ above all bearing in mind his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity.”37 No legislation could by itself do away with the fears, prejudices, and attitudes of pride and selfishness which obstruct the establishment of truly fraternal societies. Such behavior will cease only through the charity that finds in every man a “neighbor,” a brother.
1932 The duty of making oneself a neighbor to others and actively serving them becomes even more urgent when it involves the disadvantaged, in whatever area this may be. “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”38
1933 This same duty extends to those who think or act differently from us. the teaching of Christ goes so far as to require the forgiveness of offenses. He extends the commandment of love, which is that of the New Law, to all enemies.39 Liberation in the spirit of the Gospel is incompatible with hatred of one’s enemy as a person, but not with hatred of the evil that he does as an enemy.
Caritas in Veritate, encyclical of Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI – on the right to water and the public conscience.
The right to food, like the right to water, has an important place within the pursuit of other rights, beginning with the fundamental right to life. It is therefore necessary to cultivate a public conscience that considers food and access to water as universal rights of all human beings, without distinction or discrimination. (#27)
Gaudium et Spes, Vatican II – on the dignity of the individual and our growing interdependence.
26. Every day human interdependence grows more tightly drawn and spreads by degrees over the whole world. As a result the common good, that is, the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment, today takes on an increasingly universal complexion and consequently involves rights and duties with respect to the whole human race. Every social group must take account of the needs and legitimate aspirations of other groups, and even of the general welfare of the entire human family.(5)
At the same time, however, there is a growing awareness of the exalted dignity proper to the human person, since he stands above all things, and his rights and duties are universal and inviolable. Therefore, there must be made available to all men everything necessary for leading a life truly human, such as food, clothing, and shelter; the right to choose a state of life freely and to found a family, the right to education, to employment, to a good reputation, to respect, to appropriate information, to activity in accord with the upright norm of one’s own conscience, to protection of privacy and rightful freedom even in matters religious.
Laudato Si’, encyclical of Pope Francis – on the issue of water.
Other indicators of the present situation have to do with the depletion of natural resources. We all know that it is not possible to sustain the present level of consumption in developed countries and wealthier sectors of society, where the habit of wasting and discarding has reached unprecedented levels. The exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits and we still have not solved the problem of poverty.
Fresh drinking water is an issue of primary importance, since it is indispensable for human life and for supporting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Sources of fresh water are necessary for health care, agriculture and industry. Water supplies used to be relatively constant, but now in many places demand exceeds the sustainable supply, with dramatic consequences in the short and long term. Large cities dependent on significant supplies of water have experienced periods of shortage, and at critical moments these have not always been administered with sufficient oversight and impartiality. Water poverty especially affects Africa where large sectors of the population have no access to safe drinking water or experience droughts which impede agricultural production. Some countries have areas rich in water while others endure drastic scarcity.
One particularly serious problem is the quality of water available to the poor. Every day, unsafe water results in many deaths and the spread of water-related diseases, including those caused by microorganisms and chemical substances. Dysentery and cholera, linked to inadequate hygiene and water supplies, are a significant cause of suffering and of infant mortality. Underground water sources in many places are threatened by the pollution produced in certain mining, farming and industrial activities, especially in countries lacking adequate regulation or controls. It is not only a question of industrial waste. Detergents and chemical products, commonly used in many places of the world, continue to pour into our rivers, lakes and seas.
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. This debt can be paid partly by an increase in funding to provide clean water and sanitary services among the poor. But water continues to be wasted, not only in the developed world but also in developing countries which possess it in abundance. This shows that the problem of water is partly an educational and cultural issue, since there is little awareness of the seriousness of such behaviour within a context of great inequality.
Greater scarcity of water will lead to an increase in the cost of food and the various products which depend on its use. Some studies warn that an acute water shortage may occur within a few decades unless urgent action is taken. The environmental repercussions could affect billions of people; it is also conceivable that the control of water by large multinational businesses may become a major source of conflict in this century.
Message of Saint John Paul II for the celebration of the World Day of Peace, ‘Peace with God the Creation, peace with all of creation’, 1990
8. Theology, philosophy and science all speak of a harmonious universe, of a “cosmos” endowed with its own integrity, its own internal, dynamic balance. This order must be respected. The human race is called to explore this order, to examine it with due care and to make use of it while safeguarding its integrity.
On the other hand, the earth is ultimately a common heritage, the fruits of which are for the benefit of all. In the words of the Second Vatican Council, “God destined the earth and all it contains for the use of every individual and all peoples” (Gaudium et Spes, 69). This has direct consequences for the problem at hand. It is manifestly unjust that a privileged few should continue to accumulate excess goods, squandering available resources, while masses of people are living in conditions of misery at the very lowest level of subsistence. Today, the dramatic threat of ecological breakdown is teaching us the extent to which greed and selfishness – both individual and collective – are contrary to the order of creation, an order which is characterized by mutual interdependence.
9. The concepts of an ordered universe and a common heritage both point to the necessity of a more internationally coordinated approach to the management of the earth’s goods. In many cases the effects of ecological problems transcend the borders of individual States; hence their solution cannot be found solely on the national level. Recently there have been some promising steps towards such international action, yet the existing mechanisms and bodies are clearly not adequate for the development of a comprehensive plan of action. Political obstacles, forms of exaggerated nationalism and economic interests – to mention only a few factors – impede international cooperation and long-term effective action.
The need for joint action on the international level does not lessen the responsibility of each individual State. Not only should each State join with others in implementing internationally accepted standards, but it should also make or facilitate necessary socio-economic adjustments within its own borders, giving special attention to the most vulnerable sectors of society. The State should also actively endeavour within its own territory to prevent destruction of the atmosphere and biosphere, by carefully monitoring , among other things, the impact of new technological or scientific advances. The State also has the responsibility of ensuring that its citizens are not exposed to dangerous pollutants or toxic wastes. The right to a safe environment is ever more insistently presented today as a right that must be included in an updated Charter of Human Rights.
Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, A Contribution of the Holy See to the Third World Water Forum, Kyoto, 2003, ‘Water, an essential element for life’
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.
II. THE WATER ISSUE: SOME ETHICAL CONSIDERATIOINS
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 of the issues of water. The first priority of every country and the international community for sustainable water policy should be to provide access to safe water to those who are deprived of such access at present.
The earth and all that it contains are for the use of every human being and all peoples.3 This principle of the universal destination of the goods of creation confirms that people and countries, including future generations, have the right to fundamental access to those goods which are necessary for their development. Water is such a common good of humankind. This is the basis for cooperation toward a water policy that gives priority to persons living in poverty and those living in areas endowed with fewer resources4. The few, with the means to control, cannot destroy or exhaust this resource, which is destined for the use of all.
People must become the “active subjects” of safe water policies. It is their creativity and capacity for innovation that makes people the driving force toward finding new solutions. It is the human being who has the ability to perceive the needs of others and satisfy them.5 Water management should be based on a participatory approach, involving users, planners and policy makers at all levels. Both men and women should be involved and have equal voice in managing water resources and sharing of the benefits that come from sustainable water use.
In a globalized world the water concerns of the poor become the concerns of all in a prospective of solidarity. This solidarity is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good, to the good of all and of each individual. It presupposes the effort for a more just social order6 and requires a preferential attention to the situation of the poor. The same duty of solidarity that rests on individuals exists also for nations: advanced nations have a very heavy obligation to help the developing people.7
The principle of subsidiarity acknowledges that decisions and management responsibilities pertaining to water should take place at the lowest appropriate level. While the water issue is global in scope, it is at the local level where decisive action can best be taken. The engagement of communities at the grassroots level is key to the success of water programs.
Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, A Contribution of the Holy See to the Fourth World Water Forum 2006
Water: Fundamental good of God’s creation
Water is a natural resource vital for the survival of humanity and all species on earth. As a good of creation, water is destined for all human beings and their communities. God intended the earth and all it contains for the use of all, so that all created things would be shared fairly by humankind under the guidance of justice tempered by charity.(3)
Human beings, and the communities in which they live, cannot do without water since it corresponds to their primary needs and constitutes a basic condition of their existence. All depend upon the fate of water. Access to safe water and sanitation is indispensable for the life and full development of all human beings and communities in the world.
Common good is understood as the social conditions that allow people to reach their full human potential. Water is a universal common good, a common good of the entire human family. Its benefits are meant for all and not only for those who live in countries where water is abundant, well managed and well distributed. This natural resource must be equitably at the disposal of the entire human family.”
“Defining access to safe water as a human right is an important step in making this access a reality in the lives of many people living in poverty. A rights based approach places the human being at the center of development. Access to safe water is made a legal entitlement rather than a service or commodity provided on a humanitarian basis. Those least served can be better targeted and many of the discriminatory practices and inequalities be decreased. Communities that may have been vulnerable or marginalized can more easily enter into the decision-making processes. The means and mechanism to hold governments accountable for the access of their citizens to safe water will have been realized. Taking all this into consideration, a rights based approach would lead to acceleration in achieving basic and improved levels of access to safe water.”
Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, A Contribution of the Holy See to the Fifth World Water Forum, Istanbul 2009 on the right to water
The challenge remains as to how such a right to water would be realized and protected at the local, national and international levels. Just as, for example, the acknowledgement of the right to food has not eliminated hunger, the promotion of the right to water is a first step and needs careful implementation thought to arrive to the desired goal of access to safe drinking water for all. A right to adequate and safe drinking water should be interpreted in a manner fully consistent with human dignity and not in a narrow way, by mere reference to volumetric quantities and technologies or by viewing water primarily as an economic good.
Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, A Contribution of the Holy See to the Sixth World Water Forum 2012
Moderation in consumption
Some societies have the possibility and the habit of consuming for more or less essential purposes, several times a day, the amount of water indispensable for a dignifi ed life which other societies tragically do not have. This inequality in the access to and consumption of water cannot be approved.
The societies cannot be praised which consume water for superfl uous purposes in an increasingly unbridled consumerism aimed at the unlimited accumulation of goods48 because these are practices contrary to sustainable development.
The motivation cannot be shared whereby the consuming or saving of water in a given place, especially in an advanced country, would not have consequences elsewhere, especially in developing countries. Water constitutes a “system” worldwide, and even if there was not a direct connection between consumption and availability in two different places, other indirect connections exist that must be kept in mind: to transport, purify and consume water costs and requires energy. The amounts required could be spent in a more useful way by helping the poorest. Also, the fact should not be forgotten that this energy is sometimes taken from regions that need it more.
The Holy See, therefore, reaffirms the importance of moderation in consumption and invokes the responsibility of administrations, businesses and individual citizens. Such moderation is supported by values such as altruism, solidarity and justice….
Billions of people are still without water in a sufficient quantity or quality for a dignified, secure and comfortable life. Confident in the sense of responsibility of the various actors involved in the management of water, the Holy See wishes to shares its viewpoint with the Governments and all people of good will. By recalling the duty of solidarity, it hopes that the commitments made will be respected and that sustainable solutions will be adopted with urgency and particular attention to the most vulnerable and the future generations. In this way the upcoming major international events will be able to propose the solutions that are correct and sustainable for the environment and backed by innovative mechanisms that will guarantee their respect and rapid implementation. It should not be overlooked that in implementing the right to water, the gap between the funds considered necessary and those effectively mobilized exerts an influence.
All too frequently water is the object of pollution, waste and speculation. It is contested more and more and a well-known cause of persistent conflicts. Instead, it should be taken care of like a universal good that is indispensable for people’s integral development and peace.
Address of His Holiness Pope Francis to Conference on the Human Right to Water, Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 23 February 2017 (as reported on Vatican Radio):
The Book of Genesis tells us that water was there in the beginning (cf. Gen 1:2); in the words of Saint Francis of Assisi, it is “useful, chaste and humble” (cf. Canticle of the Creatures). The questions that you are discussing are not marginal, but basic and pressing. Basic, because where there is water there is life, making it possible for societies to arise and advance. Pressing, because our common home needs to be protected. Yet it must also be realized that not all water is life-giving, but only water that is safe and of good quality.
All people have a right to safe drinking water. This is a basic human right and a central issue in today’s world (cf. Laudato Si’, 30; Caritas in Veritate, 27). This is a problem that affects everyone and is a source of great suffering in our common home. It also cries out for practical solutions capable of surmounting the selfish concerns that prevent everyone from exercising this fundamental right. Water needs to be given the central place it deserves in the framework of public policy. Our right to water is also a duty to water. Our right to water gives rise to an inseparable duty. We are obliged to proclaim this essential human right and to defend it – as we have done – but we also need to work concretely to bring about political and juridical commitments in this regard. Every state is called to implement, also through juridical instruments, the Resolutions approved by the United Nations General Assembly since 2010 concerning the human right to a secure supply of drinking water. Similarly, non-state actors are required to assume their own responsibilities with respect to this right.
The right to water is essential for the survival of persons (cf. Laudato Si’, 30) and decisive for the future of humanity. High priority needs to be given to educating future generations about the gravity of the situation. Forming consciences is a demanding task, one requiring conviction and dedication.
The statistics provided by the United Nations are troubling, nor can they leave us indifferent. Each day a thousand children die from water-related illnesses and millions of persons consume polluted water. These facts are serious; we have to halt and reverse this situation. It is not too late, but it is urgent to realize the need and essential value of water for the good of mankind.
Respect for water is a condition for the exercise of the other human rights (cf. ibid., 30). If we consider this right fundamental, we will be laying the foundations for the protection of other rights. But if we neglect this basic right, how will we be able to protect and defend other rights? Our commitment to give water its proper place calls for developing a culture of care (cf. ibid., 231) and encounter, joining in common cause all the necessary efforts made by scientists and business people, government leaders and politicians. We need to unite our voices in a single cause; then it will no longer be a case of hearing individual or isolated voices, but rather the plea of our brothers and sisters echoed in our own, and the cry of the earth for respect and responsible sharing in a treasure belonging to all. In this culture of encounter, it is essential that each state act as a guarantor of universal access to safe and clean water.