Towards a third world war for water?

It took me some time to meditate on and – hopefully understand – one of the most quoted sentences of Pope Francis’s address to the international workshop The Human Right to Water. An interdisciplinary focus and contributions on the central role of public policies in water and sanitation management (Vatican City, 23-24 february) organised by the Argentinian Catedra del Dialogo y la Cultura del Encuentro with the Pontificial Academy of Science.

The organizers legitimated the name of their Chair by gathering together a heterogeneous mix of participants. These ranged from representatives of global water institutions like the World Water Council or of multinational corporations like Coca Cola, to radical scholars that have bitterly argued against the privatization of water services; from activists of Latin America grassroots movements or public services’ trade unions to representatives of different religious traditions. The moral authority of the Pope message, and particularly the Laudato sí (LS) encyclical letter – with whom Pope Francis wishes “to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home” (LS, n. 3) – facilitated a rich and meaningful discussion, acknowledging and respecting the differences of opinions and stands.

In addressing this audience, Pope Francis augmented his official address by speaking off the cuff and asking “if in this piecemeal third world war that we are living through, are we not going toward a great world war for water?” (at minute 14 of the video of his address). Not surprisingly, the reference to the water war made the headlines of the many media present at the workshop. I have to admit that my initial reaction to this reference was one of disappointment. Why Pope Francis, whose style constantly surprises his interlocutors, reverted to the corny narrative of the “water wars” that we are trying to challenge and to complicate with the Open Water Diplomacy Lab?

Later I reinterpreted the reference to the water wars in light of the paradigm of integral ecology that inform Laudato si’ and affirms that “Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. (…) We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature” (LS, n. 139).

In light of this paradigm, the reference to a “great world war for water”, according to my understanding, points at the mechanisms of social and ecological injustice that exclude peoples from accessing water – without forgetting sanitation – and hamper the full enjoyment of basic human rights. With water being just one of the aspects of a broader process of exclusion – or expulsion to use the notion put forth by Saskia Sassen in her latest book and at the workshop as well – generating growing inequalities within and across countries, like in a “piecemeal third world war”.

This idea links to another off the cuff remark by Pope Francis, that quoted twice the UN official data on child mortality linked to water related diseases and closed his address by exhorting “Let’s not forget the UN data. Let’s not forget that every day one thousand children – every day! – die because of water related diseases”. These are well known figures within the global water community, but sometimes I have the feeling that we just get used to it without being sufficiently upset by them. We are aware that those deaths do not simply depend on the availability of water resources: rather they are the outcome of poverty and of inequalities in access to adequate food, water and sanitation, health and education. Here again the ecological dimension is strictly interwoven with the social one.

The Pope final call goes beyond this, reminding that integral ecology is not simply an analytical framework, but also an existential option with clear normative implications: it requires the culture of care recalled both in Laudato si’ and in the Pope’s address to the workshop, where he qualified such culture of care as “creative”, recalling its poetic and its “poiesis”. I found this reference to a creative culture of care particularly stimulating for researchers committed to social justice and equity, beyond their respective spiritual orientation. It recalls the responsibility of rigorously studying water governance issues, and, at the same time, constantly questioning how our work contributes to transform them and in which direction.

Featured image credits

“The war of water” by Brad Higham is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Cite this blog post
Emanuele Fantini (2017, March 13). Towards a third world war for water? FLOWs. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from

Emanuele Fantini

Emanuele (@emanufanti) is senior lecturer and researcher at the Water Governance Department of IHE Delft. Committed to public engagement and crossover projects with artists and journalists, Emanuele coordinates the project “Open Water Diplomacy. Media, science and transboundary cooperation in the Nile basin”, he hosts the podcasts “The Sources of the Nile”, “Water Alternatives Podcast”, and “Si dice acqua”, and he is the editor of IHE Delft Water Governance Blog, FLOWs.

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