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Pope Francis and the pain of water scarcity in a thirsty world


Pope Francis / AFP PHOTO / Alberto PIZZOLI

For nearly two thousand years, the Office of the Papacy has stood as some form of universal patriarchy of humanity much beyond its headship of the Roman Catholic Church. Beyond the boundaries of faith, creed, race, ethnicity, nationality, and language or sitting from France (for a short period), Rome or today, the micro city-state of the Vatican, the various Popes, now numbering 266 men, have stood to defend and advance the most cherished of human values. Such efforts they made often facing the vilest manifestations of political leadership, coming from idolised emperors, brutal kings and princes, dictators, tyrants, oligarchs and the like, or even internecine church schism.

It is recalled that Portugal and Spain, in the mid-1400s, decided to adventure to ‘discover the rest of the world’ in a cut-throat manner. It was the proactive ruling of Pope Alexander (Papal Bulls of Demarcation), which divided the world into two that brought peace to the then two superpowers. Even the present world order, dating to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, Treaty of Paris in 1783 and Treaty of Versailles in 1919, heralding the emergence of the nation-state system in Europe and its spread to the rest of the world owes it nascence to the adroit diplomacy, facilitation, and direct involvement of some of the Popes of the time.

It is against this backdrop of identity with prevailing societal challenges, that the decision of the incumbent, His Holiness, Pope Francis to take on the question of proper valorisation of WATER for the whole gamut of human existence is not amiss. Coming from a personal background of Jesuit priests, who are given to works of charity and care for the most vulnerable of society, Pope Francis’ heartbeat towards the availability of this most essential of human needs to all and for its multifarious purposes is even, more understandable. Aside, he comes from Argentina, unlike all but one before him, all of who were only Europeans. As Archbishop and Cardinal in that South American country, he had seen poverty and not the least, the absence of Water in the ‘slums’ of Buenos Aires, Cordoba, Rosario, and other major cities of that football loving nation and perhaps its neighbours.


This Pope’s views regarding this subject matter of Water were contained in an official ‘Encyclical’ – the highest form of papal communication borne out of deepest devotional reflection. Dwelling pointedly on the global water emergency if one may term it so, Pope Francis in Encyclical Letter Laudito of May 240, 2015, underlined, amongst other things, strong concern and need for correspondence of global action to ensure water availability, conservation, and sustainable use. The Pope adumbrated his conviction thus: “Access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right… is essential to human survival and… is a condition for the exercise of other human rights”.

In other words, access to clean water and sanitation are a right which all of humanity ought to enjoy in an inalienable manner. It is not a favour or privilege as sometimes presumed by the political class in most developing countries but an intrinsic right that exists in natural form and ordained by God.

‘El Papa” as the Pope is called in Spanish and Italian, rightly reminds, that all of humanity through timeless civilisations recognise and venerate the place of Water to the survival of life. In almost every human culture, instinctive the saying goes that ‘Water is life’. Indeed, scientific enquiries bordering on the planetary system use the possibility of presence of minutest molecules of water to gauge past or present existence of life. The earth itself and even the human body are made up of 70 per cent water.

Perhaps, inspired by the Papal demarche in May 2015, the United Nations General Assembly on December 15 of same year, unanimously adopted a resolution affirming ‘Water as Fundamental Human Right’.

In so doing, it was recognised that Water was the common denominator that was visible in all the erstwhile Eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which set targets towards the year 2030 on various social issues, Goal Six is centred on Water access. Water straddles all things and is rightly speaking the mother of all.

It must, however, be acknowledged in retrospect, that the seventh United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, himself an African from Kumasi, Ghana and therefore no stranger to this matter, on March 12, 2001, had pioneered this issue of water as a fundamental Human Right, arguing that “access to safe water is a fundamental human need and therefore a basic human right. Contaminated water jeopardises both the physical and social health of all.”

Similarly, at regional and national levels, there have been strong declaratory commitments, lamentations, promises and action plans underscoring at times more ambitious targets for dealing with Water scarcity. For example, it was African Ministers of Water Conference (AMCOW) which rose from its meeting in the Egyptian resort town of Sham Elizabeth Sheik in Egypt in 2005, with a 20-year plan to give all Africans Water by 2025! Nigeria for one, like most countries, has one of the best national water policies for urban, small towns and rural areas. There are also well articulated policies with regards to sanitation, hydropower development, hydrology and watershed management, irrigation and drainage and the like! Even more than that, almost every aspiring politician has typically made the provision of this ‘human right’ a priority.

The object of the Papal Encyclical and the subsequent actions, including the ‘convening’ select world experts from different faiths and regions from March 21, 2001 at the sacred St Augustine Hall in the Vatican, was, therefore, to unravel and interrogate more pellucidly, the paradoxical underplay and underpinnings surrounding water. So why is potable water still very scarce all over?


Such questions as to the amazing inequalities between rich and poor countries, e.g. between two children living respectively in Germany and Chad and even at national levels, say between families in Asokoro and Nyanya or a housewife in Ikoyi and another in Ajegunle. Why the carnage of a child accordingly to UNICEF, dying every 90 seconds around the world because of bad water? Why will some girl children in many places around this same world still trek for five kilometres every morning to fetch, often, contaminated water before going to school? Why are people living in littoral areas, like the Niger Delta of Nigeria or around the Orinoco River in equally oil rich Venezuela, among the worst-hit by this palaver?

Other questions are: Why is so much water being so poorly managed, wasted, unrecycled, allowed to be discharged to the ocean or suffer the highest forms of precipitation; which like the Lake Chad which in 50 years shrank from 26,000 square kilometres to the present 1,000 square kilometres? Why is the water for irrigation and dry season agriculture not readily available to combat global hunger and drought? What about the looming global wars over shared trans-boundary water as is the case between Ethiopia and Egypt or in the Middle East? Can the superabundant waters of the great oceans be more easily and readily available to ensure a more secured future for our children? And so on.

Coming in the Holy Month of Lent, the specially celebrated Mass by the Pope at the hallowed St Peters Square on Wednesday, March 22, 2017, attended by men and women of diverse religions, provided the right spiritual ambience and impulse for the commencement of this water dialogue. Gladly, leading global think-tanks like the Club of Rome, Cycle of Blue, the Pacific Institute and a cortege of corporate bodies seem poised not to leave the Pontiff alone to bear this pain. But more importantly, the Papal initiative on Water seems to be more directed at going beyond bended knees and high sounding hydrological grammars to practical, realisable solutions. In the same way, that the world dealt with the scourge of smallpox and is relentless on other challenges as cancer, HIV-AIDS, malaria, the Pope seems more than committed to keep following up to ensure that sooner than later, mankind puts the elusiveness of a largely thirsty world behind all and fully enjoys one of the freest and most abundant of God’s benevolent provisions.
Dr. Godknows Boladei Igali, a diplomat, administrator, and award-winning writer, just returned from the Vatican.


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