On February 23 and 24, I had the humbling honor of participating in a safe water access conference held in Vatican City—yes the Vatican City the Pope calls home. You see, the Pope and his church care deeply for the environment and people, and they’re determined to help initiate solutions toward a more water-secure world. This determination is something all of us who took part in the seminar share.

The United Nation’s (UN) Millennium Development Goals set a target to decrease by half the number of people without access to improved water sources. While the UN reports this was achieved by the end of 2015, more than 600 million people remain without such access. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals seek universal access to safe drinking water by 2030. “Safe” drinking water means water that is safe to drink, meeting international standards of quality, and extends beyond “improved sources.” Accounts differ, but when you use the “safe” threshold, the number of people without access climbs from more than 600 million well into the billions.

The conference, “Human Right to Water: An interdisciplinary focus and contributions on the central role of public policies in water and sanitation management”, was organized by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, headquartered in Vatican City, and the Catedra Del Dialogo y La Cultura Del Encountro of Argentina. The hosts convened leading voices on water, human rights, policy and communities from around the world, representing sectors from academia and research, private business and civil society, governments and labor organizations, and certainly religion. The expectation of us was to explore and propose solutions for global water challenges.

Vatican Water
Conference delegates with Pope Francis outside the Vatican.

You might wonder why the Holy See (Catholic Church) has such an interest in water. If you read Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’, you will find clear views on critical topics such as climate change, pollution and the well-being of people and the planet. Central to the encyclical and the Pope’s views on well-being is water:

“In fact, access to safe drinking water is an essential, a fundamental and universal human right, because it determines the survival of people, and this is a requirement for the exercise of other human rights.” (Laudato Si’ 30).

Watch Pope Francis' remarks at the conference.

Another mystery may be why I was there. At Coca-Cola, we have long recognized safe, accessible water as essential to the health of people and communities, critical to ecosystems, and indispensable for economic prosperity. With this understanding, we have built a strong water stewardship program, which I have led for many years. My role at the conference was to share insights and lessons learned from our global program, especially what The Coca-Cola Company, our bottling partners, and implementing partners have learned from helping some 3 million people gain access to safe drinking water through programs such as RAIN and Lazos de Agua.

What was the outcome?

As is often the case when I join colleagues, peers and other engaged water stewards to discuss water issues, I am grateful for the opportunity to have contributed but also thankful for all that was gained from the experience. I left Vatican City with an even higher appreciation for the power of many perspectives, in candid debate, to explore solutions toward a shared goal. I also learned the important role of religion and spirituality in addressing shared problems we all face in our environment and improving the life of people. I will carry these valuable reminders and discoveries with me as I work to contribute to a healthier world. 

Greg Koch is senior director of Global Water Stewardship at The Coca-Cola Company.