Today is the United Nations World Water Day and the emphasis this year is on wastewater. Certainly an unglamorous topic and one we may prefer not to think about; after all, isn’t that why they put handles on our toilets? You press them and the problem goes away.
This is not the case, though, for the 2.4 billion people who the World Health Organization tells us live without basic sanitation facilities. This lack of toilets or latrines causes an estimated 280,000 diarrhea deaths each year and contributes to a number of bacterial, viral, and parasitic diseases. It also contributes to the malnutrition which is a factor in the poor outcome of so many illnesses in mission countries. Pope Francis, in his address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences last month, summed the problem up better than I can, noting that “…it must also be realized that not all water is life-giving, but only water that is safe and of good quality.” His address makes me step back from thinking about the everyday work of mission hospitals which treat individuals stricken with an illness and to ponder the root causes of illness. The Pope’s assertion that “Our right to water is also a duty to water.” calls us to consider our collective responsibility to assist people in resource-limited countries to live in conditions such that they do not become ill in first place.