Father William Byron, S.J.

A world without water would be a world without life. So it is urgent that attention be paid to serious water shortages in many parts of the world.

The moral principle of solidarity brings the entire world together around water. Everyone depends on water. No one anywhere is untouched by the need for life-giving, life-sustaining water.

The present water crisis is a challenge that must be met by religious conviction (we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers), moral action (it would be morally wrong to stand by and do nothing), scientific and engineering ingenuity (we have the knowledge and we know how to apply it), diplomacy (solving a problem of international magnitude requires international cooperation) and political will (we — leaders and led — must choose to act).

The dimensions of the present crisis are enormous: Nearly 900 million people in the world have no access to clean water, and 2.5 billion people have no safe way to dispose of human waste (hence the need for civil and sanitary engineering). Dirty water and lack of proper hygiene kill 3.3 million people around the world annually (hence the need for education and medical care).


In industrialized nations, individuals use about 100 gallons of water at home each day, yet millions of the world’s poorest subsist on less than five gallons a day. About half the people on earth do not have water piped to their homes. And where water is piped, the pipes are often leaky, rusty and in need of replacement.

In much of the developing world, lack of water is at the center of a vicious cycle of inequality. Where clean water is scarcest, fetching it is almost exclusively women’s work.

A child tests the water from a new tap at an elementary school in Hichuraya, Bolivia, in 2006. The village’s water system was installed with the aid of a Maryknoll lay missioner and a nonprofit organization working together to bring safe water for drinking, cooking and washing to households in Bolivia’s rural villages. (CNS file photo)

The water issue is a justice issue. Without clean water, the people will perish. Our faith-based respect for life and our commitment to the preservation and protection of human life call for action now, for without water there can be no human life or any life at all.

It would be wonderful, I think, if Pope Francis chose to write an encyclical letter on the material and spiritual dimensions of the water crisis.

We Catholics know that the waters of baptism initiate the life of grace within us. In the sacrament of baptism, both the life-giving and death-dealing potentials of water are made manifest. Through baptism, we are cleansed from original sin and inducted into the grace life. In baptism, we are “plunged” (that’s what the Greek verb “baptize” means) “into the death” of Jesus so that we can rise with Jesus to walk in newness of life (Rom 6:3-5).

Water is a metaphor for grace. To understand the theological reality of grace, ponder the physical reality of water, its necessity for life, its tendency to seek its own level (thus suggesting the tendency of divine grace to follow us always), its ability to hold a body afloat (thus signaling the ability of grace to sustain our spiritual lives and our effort to work for justice in the world).

An encyclical on water could highlight the justice issue associated with water. It could also serve to remind us of the reality of grace in our lives. An encyclical on water would be a great gift to the world.


Jesuit Father Byron is university professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia. Email: wbyron@sju.edu.