Water is becoming scarcer and even more of a necessity than it was before. And while stories of water scarcity typically occur in underdeveloped, arid countries, the United States and other developed countries must realize they are no longer exceptions and must take into consideration the importance of water and the allocation of its use.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal explores the severe lack of water in Palm Beach, Florida. Residents are restricted to once-a-week watering schedules for lawns and plants, however, not all residents are abiding by restrictions whereas many owners of large estates are continuing an excessive use of water. The disparity in water usage has created a disgruntled community in West Palm Beach.
While residents in the U.S. are disagreeing over water usage for landscape purposes, many throughout the world are dying of thirst, thus, putting forth the question, do communities need to reevaluate their water use? Grass, and green luscious landscapes that are found in more moderate climates are not natural to southern Florida, so is it moral for residents to obtain a landscape, requiring a large use of water, that isn’t even native to an area?
Water scarcity has become a cause for concern in the United Kingdom, and Egypt and Ethiopia have been battling over the share of the Nile’s water reserves. Many countries and local communities are now forced to take into consideration their long term use of water.
In past blog posts (here, here, and here) I’ve taken a look at the water crisis and with Italians recently deciding to repeal a law that required water to be treated as a commodity, an explanation of my previous argument in support for treating water as a commodity is needed. My last post was missing an important moral case for the privatization of water that needs to be addressed.
In his essay, “Thirst: A Short History of Drinking Water” James Salzman analyzes how different civilizations throughout history provided drinking water. Jewish law, according to Salzman, treated water as a common property resource, not an open access resource. Priority was given according to use, giving drinking water the highest priority. While water, which came from a well made possible by human labor, was for community use only, nobody was turned away who was in need of drinking water.
Rome is a great example of how water resources were allocated when a water supply and sanitation system existed. There was a public water source, known as the lacus, where Romans could collect water for free. When using the lacus, Romans had to use their own manual labor to transport the water from the lacus to their homes. However, there was also a private water supply where Romans could pay to have water brought into their homes through a pipe system.
The “right to thirst,” as explained by Salzman, is recognized by both the Romans and the Jewish law. Salzman explains every human has a right to water, and both civilizations understand that right by providing free drinking water to those in need. Such compassion shows one’s love for his or her neighbor.
However, as we see through the example of the Romans, the convenience of having a clean and sanitary water supply delivered into a home comes with a price. While we have a right to water we have to pay for the resources and the costs that come with such modern conveniences. Furthermore, as I’ve explained in my past blog post, “Water is not a human right” if we have free water for all, we will bear witness to tragedy of the commons with our water resources.
At a recent symposium on economics and finance, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s Secretary of the State, explained the importance of the private sector in water supply. Cardinal Bertone underscores the contribution that the private sector can make to providing access to water. However, he also recognizes the importance that businesses that do provide water are being called to provide an important service to people and morals need to have a higher priority than profit:
The second challenge has to do with the administration of “common goods” such as water, energy sources, communities, the social and civic capital of peoples and cities. Business today has to become more and more involved with these common goods, since in a complex global economy it can no longer be left to the state or the public sector to administer them: the talent of the business sector is also needed if they are to be properly managed. Where common goods are concerned, we urgently need business leaders for whom profit is not the exclusive goal. More and more, we need business leaders with a social conscience, leaders whose innovation, creativity and efficiency are driven by more than profit, leaders who see their work as part of a new social contract with the public and with civil society.
There is opposition to how water should be supplied. The Catholic left has a different view, supporting government’s role in providing water instead of a private entity:
On June 9, a group of more than 100 missionary priests and nuns fasted and prayed in St. Peter’s Square to underline their support for the referendum and their opposition to the privatization of water. Beneath Pope Benedict XVI’s windows, they unfurled a giant banner reading: “Lord, help us save the water!”
Some 25 Italian dioceses signed an appeal asking for a “yes” vote to preserve water as a universally shared resource. Franciscans in Assisi asked prayers and action in defense of “sister water.”
Bishop Mariano Crociata, secretary-general of the Italian bishops’ conference, said recently that access to clean water supplies was a “fundamental human right, connected to the very right to life.” He warned that privatization efforts have seen multinational companies “turn water into business” to the detriment of the wider population.
And while the U.S. has been criticized for consuming 233 billion gallons of water, it must also be kept in context. The U.S. is still one of the largest and most productive economies, producing goods that are exported to countless countries. Such productivity requires a greater consumption of water than less productive countries, however, every country that does import U.S. goods benefits.
As water is becoming scarcer we will need to reevaluate how we use and treat this precious resource. Yes, we have a obligation to take care of those in need, we must recognize, however the difference between the “right to thirst,” to have water in order to sustain life, and the luxury of commoditized water provided through extensive resources to be delivered into homes for domestic use. The Catholic Church teaches that the universal destination of material goods (water is one such good) and the principle of common use of the earth’s resources (such as mater) is primarily (though not exclusively) realized the institution of private property—an institution that comes with rights and responsibilities. Applying this reasoning to the dilemmas facing us with regard to water would certainly lead to clearer thinking about this complex question.