Papal Meeting Addresses Access to Clean Water

Human Rights

Maxwell School geography professor Farhana Sultana is passionate about one of the most basic and important resources on Earth: water.

Farhana Sultana greets Pope Francis
Photo courtesy of Farhana Sultana

Through the lens of water, Sultana examines a multitude of social issues related to access to clean water, including health, education, environmental justice, and gender equality. According to the United Nations, 783 million people don’t have access to clean water and almost 2.5 billion lack access to adequate sanitation. Six to eight million people die every year from the consequences of water-related diseases.

In recognition of her decades-long research into water access, Sultana was invited to speak at The Human Right to Water workshop hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Vatican City on February 23-24. She was one of several international researchers, humanitarian workers, government officials, and corporate leaders who presented and debated issues about water insecurity and ongoing global efforts to ensure access to clean water. At the end of the workshop, Sultana and the other participants were part of a small audience to hear Pope Francis address the issues of water insecurity and the human right to water. The Pontiff reinforced the importance of ensuring global access to clean, safe water by working concertedly to implement the human right to water everywhere. He also called for fostering a culture of care, urged policy makers to take action, and stressed the importance of educating young people about the global water crisis. “Being in the same room as Pope Francis was a mixture of intense emotions: awe, respect, gratitude, inspiration, validation, joy,” says Sultana, author of The Right to Water: Governance, Politics, and Social Struggles (Routledge, 2012). “It was simply magnificent to hear Pope Francis in person reinforce the importance of water. His speech resonated with me completely, as he argued that ensuring water access and equity are the most critical actions that we can take globally to address issues of poverty, inequity, and injustice.”

His (Pope Francis) speech resonated with me completely, as he argued that ensuring water access and equity are the most critical actions that we can take globally to address issues of poverty, inequity, and injustice.

—Farhana Sultana

Afterward, Sultana met Pope Francis. She gifted him a pair of handwoven baskets made by women in a craft cooperative in Bangladesh, a country where she did field research during a spring-semester research leave. “I thanked him for all his important work and said I am grateful for his contributions on advancing issues of social and environmental justice,” Sultana says. “He held my hand in both his hands and smiled and then laughed, thanking me several times in return. It was a lovely conversation. I will never forget that.”

Sultana’s workshop presentation addressed linking the human right to water to gender rights. “Women and girls, especially in poor and marginalized communities all over the world, struggle for clean, safe water daily, which affects education levels, societal development, well-being, and prosperity,” she says. “I focused on the important issue of gender rights as being central to the human right to water, and this point was referred back to and highly appreciated by other speakers throughout the workshop.” She also stressed raising awareness and education on these issues, as water affects all aspects of societal development and environmental sustainability.

At the workshop’s conclusion, Pope Francis signed the Vatican Declaration on the Human Right to Water, now an official document of the Vatican. Sultana was a co-signatory. “One of my contributions to the document was having the importance of women and vulnerable people be incorporated into the text,” she says. “This experience has reinforced my desire to continue my efforts not just through my teaching and research, but through the many other services and outreach activities I have always participated in.”

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