Water is Life—But Can Also Lead to Conflict

Dear Friend,

Water is life.

I’ve heard this saying in so many places where I’ve traveled, expressed in a multitude of languages. Its truth is self-evident to millions of people assisted by Catholic Relief Services. That’s why you’ll see it painted on the sides of countless wells, tanks and cisterns that bring clean, life-giving water to poor and vulnerable communities around the world.

Water is a source of life for all of us as people, for the food we eat, for the animals it sustains. Because it is so basic, needed by everyone, it takes on a social dimension. Where it is plentiful, we may take it for granted.

Yet in many countries in our world, the demand for clean water for consumption, hygiene and sanitation exceeds supply. Where water is scarce, it can be a means to bring people together, through the construction of water systems, for example. Where there is not enough, it can contribute to conflict and, sometimes, violence.

Here are the grim statistics: Approximately 1 billion people lack access to clean water, and more than twice that many do not have adequate sanitation. The vast majority of these people live in rural areas, in extreme poverty. As a result, more than 2 million people, mostly children, die each year from diseases related to dirty water and poor sanitation.

Improving water and sanitation systems in poor and vulnerable communities, as well as reconstructing these systems in places hit by disaster, has long been an important part of the work of CRS. From the beginning, our water experts have focused on the physical and technical aspects of building these systems—which they refer to in terms of “tubes and tanks.”

But what we are increasingly seeing is that we must also understand and identify the social dimensions of water, particularly where there is the potential for it to trigger conflict.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his message for the 2010 World Day of Peace, speaks of this social dimension of our natural resources: “The environment must be seen as God’s gift to all people, and the use we make of it entails a shared responsibility for all humanity, especially the poor and future generations.”

That’s why CRS now develops water projects with local communities within a peacebuilding framework. In our approach to peacebuilding, as in all our work, we draw on the principles of Catholic social teaching to strive toward building a culture of peace rooted in justice, equality and nonviolence. We seek to address the personal grievances people have with each other, as well as the unjust structures and policies on the social level. We have seen that these grievances, if left unaddressed, are the very ones that can mushroom into conflict.

One example of this peacebuilding is in El Salvador, where a CRS partner, Caritas El Salvador, is taking a leading role in the Foro de Agua, a permanent water forum comprising more than 100 organizations and institutions that work to influence public policy for the just, efficient and equitable use of water resources.

And here’s one piece of late-breaking news: CRS’ specialists in water and sanitation, along with their colleagues in peacebuilding, have collaborated on a new publication, Water and Conflict: Incorporating Peacebuilding into Water Development, which provides an overview of some of the common and growing issues of conflict in international water development. CRS sees this publication as a first step to understanding how to better incorporate peacebuilding into our water programs at the country level.

It is our hope that these new approaches will help the people we serve to build communities that live in good health—and in peace.

Thank you for your continued support and your prayers for a peaceful new year for all.

Ken Hackett

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One Response to “Water is Life—But Can Also Lead to Conflict”

  1. Marita Flynn, OSF Says:

    Mr. Kent Hackett, President
    Dear Mr Hackett, I would like to share you article on water posted above on our website.

    Kindly let me know if this is alright.
    Sr. Marita Flynn, OSF

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