Access to water



Rio+20 provided an opportunity for Progressio, its allies in other organisations, lay Catholics and people of other denominations to draw attention to the urgent need for water amongst the world’s poor.  Our campaigning involved people at all levels of the Church. The experience demonstrated a number of points about the involvement of faith groups in such activities: the significance of its theological underpinning – in this case in Catholic Social Teaching; the need for faith groups to be aware of, and have confidence in, the distinct contribution they can make; and the importance of establishing relationships of trust with allies that can be the basis of collaboration when opportunities like this arise. 

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Water and inequality

The need for water is an ongoing problem for poor people around the world. Climate change is changing the distribution of water resources around the world – drying places out and soaking others.  Inequality means the poorest cannot buy the water they need to make up the difference, yet poor people tend to be the most reliant on water resources as they use it to grow their own crops rather than buying produce, especially in rural areas. There is also a gender dimension – water work is often seen as women’s work, and this means women lose opportunities to get education or employment. It is a pattern we are seeing across our country programmes.

An opportunity for action

Rio+20, the UN’s Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012 marked 20 years since the historic Rio Earth Summit. World leaders were gathering to review progress and discuss ways to address new and urgent problems. It was a great opportunity to take our message of the need for action on water for livelihoods to the Rio+20 conference via the people in the UK we count on for support, the UK political elite and the communities in the countries in which we work.

Different forms of action

We undertook several types of activity addressing the lack of fair and sustainable access to water and its impact on livelihoods..  As well as on-the-ground service, there was advocacy though our engagement with civil servants and politicians, and campaigning involving our supporters and campaigners

The goals of the Waterproof Campaign

1: UK and EU policy change and/or proactive engagement

  • To ensure the prioritisation of sustainable and equitable water resources management in climate change adaptation and mitigation policies (including funding priorities), which incorporates a poverty perspective.

2: UK/ international private sector change

  • To ensure the prioritisation of sustainable and equitable water resources management in multilateral and private sector policies (including investment), with a particular focus on virtual water related impacts of large-scale agribusinesses on poor communities. 

3: Stronger and more active southern voice in supporter communications

  • To ensure that water-focused communications by Progressio maintain a strong and genuine Southern voice which is active and dynamic.

4: Everyday lives of supporters changed to take regular personal solidarity action:

  • To ensure Progressio supporters are prompted and supported to change their lifestyles out of solidarity with vulnerable communities. 

5: Supporter and peer agency engagement

  • see an increase in:  
    • the number of people taking campaign actions, both existing Progressio supporters and new;
    • the number of new supporters of Progressio;
    • networking and coalition-building between Progressio and peer agencies;
    • fundraising, especially with regard to the diversity of people giving.

6: Water from a development perspective key in debates within

  • Christian churches, showing a deepened understanding and more active engagement in water and development issues by Christian leaders in the UK ;
  • wider public discourse. 

7: Improvement in Progressio campaigning

  • to demonstrate our campaigning to be effective, efficient, economical, creative and professional.

See Progressio's Waterproofing development animated film:

Did we make a difference?

There were obviously obstacles in the way of progress.  Rio+20 was not being seen as a major political opportunity and the shift in global power means decisions are harder to make.  In addition, environmental issues have been slipping down both the UK political agenda and the UK church agenda.

However, Progressio’s interventions at Rio+20 contributed to the UK’s position that water (alongside food and energy) must be at the heart of any Sustainable Development Goals and that sustainable water management in agriculture is critical to food and energy security.

Link to: 

Caroline Spelman MP, the then Secretary of State for the Environment, made a statement at the Food and Drinks Association that reflected Progressio’s position:

“Food, water and energy are fundamental and inter-related issues. Dealing with any of them in isolation is fruitless. For example, agriculture uses 70% of available fresh water. Clearly, sustainable food production is not possible without sustainable water resources.”

Caroline Spelman authored a blog post for Progressio about the importance of water for sustainable development and the need for action at Rio+20. 

Progressio was a lone voice in the UK talking about the need to address water resources for small-scale farmers at Rio+20. Having contributed to the high ranking of ‘water counts’ in the Rio+20 Zero Draft, Progressio continued to call for a waterproofed Rio+20 at the summit through conversations and distributing the briefing paper to delegates from many countries including the UK, Ireland and EU.

Progressio welcomed the fact that the outcome text from Rio+20 acknowledged the centrality of water to sustainable development, recognised that water is a scarce resource, stressed the need to significantly improve the implementation of IWRM at all levels, recognised the key role that ecosystems play in maintaining water quantity and quality, and identified the link between water and other development issues, including policies on agriculture and gender.

Collaboration as a prerequisite for impact

To be convincing, it was key that we had genuine voices from the south to give authenticity to our message. Our – and their - experience meant that we had an unusual take on the issues. 

Beyond this, we had a platform resulting from our strong relationships with politicians, church leaders, other church-based development agencies, and the Catholic community.   We held an event, “Christian Conversations on Rio+20” with CAFOD, Christian Aid and Tearfund attended by the Secretary of State who is also a Christian.

Our campaigning relied on lay Catholics and people of other denominations getting involved – there were two actions. One  of them, “The Future We Want” gave people a free hand. (See Progressio's The Future We Want video:  The other was more specific about taking Rio+20 as an opportunity to move on water.

We have supporters of other faiths and many voluntary, public or private sector allies.  There were many conversations with civil servants ahead of, and during, Rio+20.  We worked with other NGOs and the private sector before and during Rio+20. We contacted Nick Clegg and Caroline Spelman. Campaigners in the local community had a photo action and postcard actions and the voices of service users were heard in The Future We Want video as well as in our briefings and other publications. 

Leadership at all levels of the Church

People were involved from different levels of the Church. 

  • We quoted the Pope;
  • Bishops endorsed what we were doing and made representations to politicians;
  • Priests gave support to our work;
  • Laity acted as multipliers in their communities.

The project demonstrated that there are roles for church leaders at every level of engagement – you just need to work out what’s most appropriate, and who counts as a ‘leader’ in different situations.

A learning experience

We learnt lots of lessons about the importance of leadership in different context. As faith-based organisations, we need to keep making the case for our issues, and staying faithful and authentic to the people we seek to work alongside and influence.  But we need leadership in our faith communities too: leaders must speak with us and for us.  Secular leaders are often looking to us to take a lead – we need to not be afraid to step into the public square and speak.  It is important for agencies such as ours to reflect on their activity, and to be prepared to break with existing good practice to get better practice. For example, adding voices to policy documents isn’t necessarily good practice.

Collaboration and partnership take time, and are fundamentally about relationships and learning that you can all get what you want if you give way a bit.  It is helpful if church/faith leaders work alongside agencies and use that relationship for mutual benefit. Having good relationships is also essential to local action: encouraging people to contribute, enabling them to feel that their contribution will make a difference, keeping them informed and celebrating the part they play.  Local churches/faith groups need to stay true to who they are and recognise they have a unique contribution to make whilst also being open to new relationships and the role of agencies.

We would urge lay people to get involved – to be active Christians and unite for change. Don’t be satisfied with the status quo – push forward. 

Rooted in Catholic social thought

The distinctiveness of this project was that it was that it was undertaken by an agency animated by faith. It engaged Catholic and other communities of faith.  It aimed to bring the concerns of Catholics and people of faith to the public square.  It was rooted in Catholic social thought.  In particular, it drew on Catholic Social Teaching on the environment. 

Link to:

© Progressio


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