Vatican: Water a Common Good of Humanity

By Vanya Walker-Leigh

ROME, Italy, April 24, 2003 (ENS) - The Holy See, representing the one billion members of the Roman Catholic Church, has stated its strong support for water as a common good of humanity and the continued public, not private, overall control of water supplies.

Championed by NGOs, trade unions and farmers groups, such concepts are opposed by a number of governments, as seen at last month's Third World Water Forum in Kyoto, Japan.

By contrast, at the G8 environment ministers meeting in Paris starting Friday, G8 president France will be inviting fellow members to endorse measures, such as the Camdessus report on water financing, "Financing Water for All," which failed to gain consensus support under the Third World Water Forum's final ministerial declaration.


Michel Camdessus of France was managing director and chairman of the Executive Board of the International Monetary Fund from 1987 to 2002. (Photo courtesy OECD)
Michel Camdessus, former managing director of the International Monetary Fund, led a group that studied the financing of an improved and expanded global water infrastructure to deliver potable water to thirsty millions. In the Camdessus report, financing would come from water user fees, as well as financial markets, multilateral financial institutions, governments and official development aid.

At the World Water Forum representatives from hundreds of NGOs and unions around the world stormed out during the Camdessus presentation, demanding that the World Water Council adopt another direction.

Regardless, the G8 presidency will seek top political endorsement for measures such as the Camdessus plan at the G8 Summit in Evian, France set for June 1 through 3.

The Vatican's position was set out in a note by the President of the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace Archbishop Renato Martino submitted to the World Water Forum on March 22, foreshadowing a more developed and detailed document to be published later this year in the light of the Forum's conclusions.

Diplomatic observers doubt the Vatican view will influence policies of the two G8 members with predominantly Roman Catholic populations - France and Italy. But it might have considerable impact in shaping responses of a number of Catholic developing countries to European Union requests under the World Trade Organization to open up public water services to private foreign operators, as well as similar advice received from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.


Archbishop Renato Martino was for 14 years the Holy See’s Observer to the United Nations until he returned to the Vatican last December to take up the post of president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. (Photo courtesy UN)
Entitled "Water, An Essential Element for Life," Archbishop Martino's Note says, "Water is a common good of humankind. This is the basis for cooperation toward a water policy that gives priority to persons living in poverty and those living in areas endowed with fewer resources."

"The centrality of the human person must be foremost in any consideration of the issues of water," the Note continues. "For water users living in poverty this is rapidly becoming an issue crucial for life and, in the broad sense of the concept, a right to life issue."

"The principle of the universal destination of the goods of creation confirms that people and countries, including future generations, have the right to fundamental access to those goods which are necessary for their development," the Note states. "The few, with the means to control, cannot destroy or exhaust this resource, which is destined for the use of all. Powerful international interests, public and private, must adapt their agendas to serve human needs rather than dominate them."

On water governance, the Note states that "the trend away from centralized government agencies and towards empowering local governments and local communities to manage water supplies must be emphasized. Water management should be based on a participatory approach, involving users, planners and policy makers at all levels. Both men and women should be involved and have equal voice in managing water resources and sharing of the benefits that come from sustainable water use. "

The Note supports a role for private investors, but within clear public interest restrictions. "It has proved to be extremely difficult to establish the right balance of public-private partnerships and serious errors have been committed, " the Note says.

At times individual enterprises have attained almost monopoly powers over public goods. A prerequisite for effective privatization is that it be set within a clear legislative framework which allows government to ensure that private interventions do in actual fact protect the public interest.


A father helps his children get a drink from a public water tap in Dehradun, India. (Photo courtesy FAO)
"The debate today, the Note says, "is not whether the private sector will be involved but how and to what extent it will be present as the actual provider of water services. In any formation of private sector involvement with the state, there must exist a general parity among the parties allowing for informed decisions and sound agreements. A core concern in private sector involvement in the water sector is to ensure that efforts to achieve a water service that is efficient and reliable do not cause undue negative effects for the poor and low income families."

The Note calls for country partnerships between developed and developing countries, as well as debt for water swaps.

"The water services in many developing countries are, however, still plainly inadequate in providing safe water supplies. The situation is so dramatic that it will not be overcome without increased development assistance and focused private investment from abroad," Archbishop Marino emphasizes in the Note.

"Funds released through debt relief could well be utilized in improving water services," he says. "Country partnerships can provide a method of institutional building and reform whereby a long term link can be formed between the water sector of a developed country and that of a developing country."

Since the water supply of most developed countries is in the public sector, this appeal appears closely aligned to the civil society calls for public-public partnerships as opposed to the public-private partnerships advocated by in past years by the World Bank, the Global Water Partnership, the water multinationals and several Western donors.

The Vatican's Note can be downloaded by clicking here.

The Camdessus Report "Financing Water for All" is online at: