A Zambian woman scoops dirty water from a shallow open well into a bucket.
Agnes Banda collects water from a contaminated source in rural Zambia.

World Water Day 2024 Reminds Us Clean Water Still a Dream for Many

Despite technological advances, safe water is sadly still out of reach for many families — especially in developing countries. As the United Nations draws attention to this problem through World Water Day, held annually on March 22, we want to acknowledge how the Catholic Church has responded to this global need and how U.S. parishioners can get involved in that work of mercy. It isn’t an understatement to say lives can be saved as a result.

The Global Water Crisis

We take it for granted that clean, safe water will pour out of any spigot we turn on in our homes. We also take it for granted that flush toilets will be available to us.

In many parts of the world, such as remote villages in Zambia, families can’t make these assumptions. There, many people have never had indoor plumbing, used a modern bathroom or enjoyed a reliable source of properly treated water. Their only way of protecting themselves from bacteria and parasites in their water supply involves boiling it over an open flame — and that is an impossibly impractical option for every use and doesn’t remove impurities.

One recent UNICEF report indicated that in 2022:

  • 2 billion people worldwide lacked access to safely managed water services, defined as “an improved source that is accessible on premises, available when needed and free from [fecal] and priority chemical contamination.”
  • 115 million people gathered their drinking water from rivers, lakes and other surface water sources.
  • 296 million people depended on an unprotected dug well or unprotected spring.

Donate to Provide Water for the Poor


Why Clean Water Matters

Having to rely on unsafe water sources isn’t merely unpleasant or inconvenient. It is dangerous — and sometimes even deadly.

In addition to the widespread problem of chronic dehydration, communities that lack improved water and sanitation must wrestle with frequent waterborne illness. UNICEF estimates that unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene practices cause the deaths of about 1,000 children under age 5 daily.

Contaminated water leads to a wide range of maladies, from minor gastrointestinal illnesses to cholera and typhoid fever. There is also the risk that open sources will attract mosquitoes, which carry diseases of their own and can cause a malaria outbreak. In Nicaragua, the second highest cause of death is kidney failure — and part of the blame can be placed on insufficient access to clean water.

Zambia’s Water Crisis

In the small villages that dot the Zambian countryside, families face blistering heat, dangerous animals, disease-carrying mosquitoes and a long dry season. In many cases, these already daunting challenges are further exacerbated by the deprivations of poverty, including problems accessing safe water. This lack of a reliable water source creates numerous problems.

During the dry season, life becomes particularly difficult. As streams and shallow wells dry up, desperate mothers do all they can just to fetch enough water to survive, even if it means digging holes in a dry riverbed to retrieve a bucketful of muddy groundwater. During a dry spell, many of these families will live in a constant state of dehydration, and their farmlands will become parched. Even basic sanitation, such as handwashing, will become nearly impossible.

And when the rains come, it can be a mixed blessing. That water may bring life or — as has become increasingly common in the region — it may result in floods that destroy crops and damage property. Even the “good” rain that nourishes crops can create threats. Children risk drowning as they attempt to bathe in fast-moving rivers, and the water becomes contaminated with parasites, bacteria and animal waste as it flows downstream.

Another casualty of unimproved water and sanitation is education. Even when children aren’t missing school due to illness, they often arrive late or not at all because they are spending hours fetching water from distant sources with long queues.

The Church Responds

It is easy to feel invisible when your community sits outside the reach of modern water and sanitation infrastructure. Fortunately, in these remote places, the Church stands as an advocate for the poor and an active agent of change, and Catholic priests, religious sisters and lay workers are perfectly positioned to develop effective approaches to meeting the urgent needs of the poor. All they need is our support.

Why are Catholic missions, parishes and dioceses the best at providing water access to faraway places? Because they understand — and often have personally experienced — how detrimental the lack of clean water is to local homes, schools, farms and medical clinics.

What’s more, these in-country Catholic leaders feel the weight of the second Corporal Work of Mercy, which is to give drink to the thirsty. This spiritual mandate, rooted in Jesus’ words in Matthew 25, inspires them to solve the water crisis and ignites a passion in their hearts to bring health and hope to the poor.

These faithful men and women on the front lines of world poverty relief and development often lack the resources to implement their plans. That’s where Cross Catholic Outreach comes into the picture.

Related: How Spiritual Transformation and Clean Water Are Related

The Cross Catholic Outreach Solution

As an official Catholic relief and development ministry recognized by the Vatican and endorsed by more than 150 U.S. bishops, archbishops and cardinals, Cross Catholic Outreach mobilizes the global Catholic Church to transform the poor and their communities materially and spiritually for the glory of Jesus Christ.

Since 2001, Cross Catholic Outreach has delivered more than $4 billion in aid to more than 90 countries throughout Africa, Latin America, East Asia, the Caribbean and beyond.

We support a variety of programs — including the provision of clean, safe water — and we believe the most effective way to accomplish real change is to back up the efforts of local ministries that know the people and understand their needs. This strategy is in keeping with the Catholic principle of subsidiarity and is paired with a commitment to empowering partners who strive to effect long-term material and spiritual transformation in the communities they serve.

How You Can Help

A Zambian girl operates a hand-pump well while a boy collects the water in buckets.
Children pump water from a clean water well in a remote Zambian village.

One way you can join with Cross Catholic Outreach in providing water for the thirsty is by giving to our Wells of Salvation Lenten Outreach.

Through this campaign, you will help bless 49,000 men, women and children in Zambia and Malawi with clean, safe water. The goal this year is to drill and repair a total of 109 hand-pump wells. The wells are drilled deep to ensure that clean, abundant water flows continually, and the communities are educated and equipped to take ownership of the wells and maintain them for years to come. Through this outreach, families in desperate need can finally experience the blessings a simple but durable hand-pump well can provide. When you support this effort, you will bring health and refreshment to those who thirst for both safe drinking water and the spiritual refreshment of Jesus Christ, the Living Water our souls crave.

Related: Catholics Provide Safe Water to Thirsty Families in Ghana, Malawi and Zambia

Donations from this campaign will be used to cover any expenditures incurred through June 30, 2024, the close of our ministry’s fiscal year. In the event that more funds are raised than needed to fully fund the project, the excess funds, if any, will be used to meet the most urgent needs of the ministry.