Pope Francis: Clean water is a human right

William Patenaude
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“How could this happen in the United States?”

That’s a question many ask when the topic of the water in Flint, Michigan comes up. It’s a good question. Here’s another: “Could this happen somewhere else?”

Nationwide, there’s about a $384 billion price tag for the work that will be needed by 2030 to maintain our drinking water systems. Wastewater infrastructure will need another $271 billion. These numbers come from surveys by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, which performs such national needs assessments every few years.

Those of us involved in the world of clean water (either the kind we drink or what we discharge back to nature) sometimes find ourselves having to help communities sell the benefits of clean water to rate payers. We sometimes first have to explain the benefits to elected officials. This always puzzled me because clean water is a fundamental need of civilization.

And yet, where does paying for clean water come in our communal priorities?

Here’s an exercise that may help answer that question. Write down the amount of your monthly bill for cable television, your cell phone, and your utilities. I had a group of wastewater operators do this a few months ago for a management program I run. They were surprised at the results. Like most people across the nation, they were paying much more for cable television and cell phones than for treating what they drank from the tap or what went to the sewers. This discrepancy hadn’t really occurred to them until we started talking about the numbers.

In the matter of Flint’s water crisis, there were many issues and decisions that led to their problems. But perhaps one cause was the desire by community leaders to treat water as an expense that we must avoid so that we can pay for other things.

In his environmental encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis said that clean water is a human right.

Specifically he says that “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.” (LS 30)

He also says this:

“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.” (LS 28)

The pope, of course, is basing his concerns on realities around the globe, especially in developing nations or those with excessive poverty rates.

Fortunately we here in Rhode Island and in much of our nation have access to sound water systems that are operated by caring professionals. But if we as a culture don’t continue to encourage an appreciation for the value of clean water everywhere, other communities in the United States may suffer the ills that the Holy Father laments in Laudato Si’ and that the people of Flint are living with today.

William Patenaude, M.A., KHS, is an engineer with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and is a member of the Diocesan Pastoral Council. He is a parishioner of Saints Rose and Clement Parish, Warwick, and writes at CatholicEcology.net.