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VATICAN LETTER Sep-7-2007 (950 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

For Pope Benedict, it's elemental: Safe water is of grave importance

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- When Pope Benedict XVI turns on the tap in his Vatican apartment, it's a reminder that potable water is a precious resource in today's world.

The 109-acre Vatican City does not have its own water source, and it relies on Italy to furnish it with the estimated 5 million cubic meters of water consumed inside the Vatican each year.

Although that arrangement is guaranteed by a 1929 treaty, in recent years some Italians have been grousing about the increasingly high cost of keeping the Vatican from going dry.

When the treaty was drafted, of course, it didn't seem like a big deal to promise the Vatican an everlasting "adequate endowment of water." But today, things have changed: In many countries, water has become a sensitive environmental, political and economic issue.

In recent remarks to young people at an Italian Marian shrine, Pope Benedict said he was concerned about the equitable sharing of the world's water supplies and warned that water shortages could easily fuel conflicts.

Three days later the pope sent a greeting to an environmental conference in Greenland, saying the care of water resources was of "grave importance" for the entire human family.

Last March, on World Water Day, a papal message called access to water an "inalienable right" that needs to be protected through changes in lifestyle.

The pope's appeals were brief, but they reflected the Vatican's increasing interest in the moral, political and scientific aspects of the world's safe water supply.

In 2005, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences hosted an important meeting on water and the environment. Experts pointed out that more than 1 billion people lack access to adequate drinking water, and that climate changes -- including global warming and desertification -- could aggravate the situation for many populations.

A final statement from the academy's meeting looked at long-term strategies to reduce water pollution and ensure sufficient supplies. It also emphasized that, particularly in today's globalized economy, water must be treated as a fundamental resource that belongs to all.

In 2003 the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace prepared a major document, "Water, an Essential Element for Life." Last year, council officials presented an update at the Fourth World Water Forum in Mexico, stating: "Today common agreement exists that the survival of humanity and all species on earth depends to a great degree on the fate of water."

More specifically, the council said richer countries should do more to guarantee adequate safe water in poorer countries, where supplies are at greatest risk and where investment in infrastructure is urgently needed.

The council's Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church emphasizes that water by its very nature "cannot be treated as just another commodity among many." It said water must be regarded as a public good even when its distribution is entrusted to the private sector.

That's an important point in an era when water is increasingly seen as a commodity. At the Pontifical Academy of Sciences conference, one expert said water -- the "blue gold" of the 21st century -- was seen today as an economic good by major corporations and international lending institutions.

The Vatican's interest in water resources goes beyond position papers. Last spring, Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the justice and peace council, told reporters how the issue came home to him when he visited Africa and saw people walking for miles to fetch their daily supply of safe water.

Often, the poor are paying for safe water -- and paying much more than well-off populations in the same country, according to a U.N. study in Kenya in 2006.

Unfortunately, access to clean water in Africa is not improving, according to a report earlier this year by the African Development Bank. It said Africa was unlikely to meet the Millennium Development Goal of safe drinking water for 78 percent of the population by 2015.

The report said that in major African cities 50 percent of safe water is wasted, much of it through leaky pipes and general inefficiency.

The Vatican missionary news agency, Fides, recently published a lengthy report titled "Water, Source of Life for the Christian and for Humanity." Citing U.N. reports, it said lack of access to safe water was primarily a problem of resource management and not due to a shortage of fresh water.

It warned that U.N. experts foresee a worsening of the problem in coming decades, with some predicting that by 2050 half the global population will experience shortages of clean water.

The church's missionary personnel often see the problem from a different and closer perspective than desk-bound bureaucrats. In the Fides dossier, a missionary priest in Bangladesh identified only as "Father Rudy" brought it to a human level.

During recent heavy rains, the priest said, many Bangladeshis were collecting as much runoff water as they could, directing the flow from tin roofs to large terra cotta vases.

Why was rainwater in such strong demand?

Because arsenic contamination has been discovered in much of Bangladesh's water supply, the priest said.

At a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society in London Aug. 29, experts illustrated the extent of the arsenic problem, saying it has been underestimated worldwide. They said that in Bangladesh, the most affected country, hundreds of thousands of people were expected to die from the arsenic poisoning of the water supply.

The church tries to look at this and other environmental crises realistically but not pessimistically.

As Pope Paul VI told water experts in 1975, the Christian scientist should honestly address the problem, but with the confidence that nature has in store "secret possibilities" that are up to intelligence to discover.


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