Engaging faith in the global water challenge

Climate & Natural resources,Development Policy04 Mar 2013Katherine Marshall

Few would contest the bald assertion that water (and hopefully its less discussed companion sanitation) must come at the top of any priority list for post 2015 development goals. Life itself depends on water: health, food, power, and even something as seemingly distant as mining, need reliable water. And with growing populations and rising demand for water, the prospect of water-related conflicts looms ever larger if water is not better used and the roots of conflicts addressed. As always, poor families and communities, especially women, bear the brunt of erratic water supplies, high priced water, and community tension.

The nagging, vital issue is how to translate this obvious right to water, this incontestable priority, into action. Along the path between ideals and action, experience points to important obstacles. Among them are ideological debates pitting public versus private responsibility for delivery, poorly planned partnerships, insufficient use of new technologies, and financial bottlenecks that steer investments and budget spending away from where it is most needed. Above all, efforts to guarantee water for all falter when they do not stay where they belong: at the top of priority lists. It’s time to take these obstacles and work for solutions.

A powerful and often neglected partner in this effort to slay obstacles to water for all is the world of faith. It is admittedly a vast, complex, and dynamic world, with a myriad of institutions and actors. Actors and institutions do not always see eye to eye.

But one theme is an integral part of every major world faith tradition: the sacred role of water and the importance of purity and cleanliness. Tight links between water and spirituality range from water as the crucial element in rites like baptism to the ancient role of sacred rivers. Faith communities the world over, in caring for those in need, give priority to digging wells and assuring that water is part of every approach to humanitarian relief and development.

Let’s work on ideas to harness the vast power of spiritual traditions and communities in the service of water and sanitation for all. Here are five suggestions to start us off:

1. Knowledge and information. Make sure that all faith leaders, as they consider topics for sermons or pastoral rounds, realize that good hand washing and making sure water is clean are the easiest and most effective path to preventing the spread of disease. Proper sanitation is a bit more complicated, but as a lifesaver it must be well understood and it means changing expectations and habits. Faith leaders and communities have a unique ability to convey such messages in ways that will be taken to heart. But they need to get the gist of the information in meaningful ways.

2. Dialogue and Negotiations. Poisonous ideological and political debates, rightly termed as “water wars”, detract from common efforts to move ahead. Heated discussions about privatization and discharge of public regulatory functions have derailed sensible reform schemes in far off corners of the world. Who better to help contestants to step back and reflect than spiritual leaders? Let’s try a dialogue in a place where water reform is inhibited by lack of communication or conflict and trumpet its results well beyond.

3. Accountability. If communities suspect that private operators delivering water have undue focus on profits or worry that government programs will not deliver what they promise, faith communities can help make accountability a reality. They are present on a local scale and have the trust of those they serve. They can use cell phones, posters, or a variety of other modes of personal and mass communication to reach out to their communities.

4. Reliable Partnerships. For all the talk of public-private partnerships, there are too few examples of lasting partnerships that work. That’s partly because the assets that different parties, including faith communities, bring involve far more than hard cash but the “softer” contributions, however, crucial, tend to be less valued. That’s a real problem to work on: celebrating partnerships that really work and addressing those where resentment and feelings of lack of respect detract from what can be achieved.

5. Sincere and Informed Advocacy. The cause of water needs passionate advocates, working constantly to make sure funds are appropriated, that they are well used, that obstacles are removed, and that water does indeed top the priority list. Faith leaders should be in the vanguard of advocates.

Let’s work together to make this a reality.