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The Pope and sanitation

Christopher Hyun, PhD student, Energy and Resources Group | May 26, 2017

The pope’s encyclical on climate change once again makes headlines as, probably for the first time, it has been presented to President Trump to read. Peter Gleick, president emeritus of the Pacific Institute, Tweeted what I felt when I heard the news: Short as it is, the president will probably not read it. So, Gleick shared a link to his even shorter post about it. Gleick’s post outlines the pope’s references to water in the encyclical.

Inspired by this, below, I look at what the pope says about sanitation. Why? There are about 1.4 billion people without access to proper sanitation. There are about 1.1 billion Catholics in the world. If every Catholic follows what the pope orders in this encyclical, it would go a long way to fixing our sanitation problems. So, what does he say?



First of all in general, the encyclical is quite legible, set in logical order, with clear and coherent arguments. The bottom line? Hurting the earth is bad, so stop it. The pope quotes Bartholomew, who states:

to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves…

But it is, of course, more nuanced than that. The encyclical helps one to think again about the role of religion in environmental movements. So after reading this post, go and read it in its entirety for yourself.

But now, what does the pope say specifically about sanitation?

To begin with, the pope addresses waste and recycling:

We have not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations…

The pope here primarily focuses on industrial waste, but this obviously applies to wastewater and sanitation as well. Most cities in the world do not have systems in place to reuse wastewater and nutrient- and energy-rich excrement. As cities become more and more drought-prone and their water supplies contaminated with untreated sewage, they need to shift their thinking from conventional “linear” systems to more circular systems of water and sanitation.



The first time the pope mentions sanitation more directly is here (emphasis mine):

Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity. This debt can be paid partly by an increase in funding to provide clean water and sanitary services among the poor. But water continues to be wasted, not only in the developed world but also in developing countries which possess it in abundance. This shows that the problem of water is partly an educational and cultural issue, since there is little awareness of the seriousness of such behaviour within a context of great inequality.

The pope mentions sanitation in the context of equity and human rights. He hits on, what I believe to be, the heart of why every person has a right to sanitation: dignity. There is often an appeal to dignity in sanitation discourse, so I’ll reserve a longer discussion about it for another post. Though I would add here that interestingly, Ruth Macklin in the British Journal of Medicine suggests that our constant appeal to human dignity may come from the influence of religion, especially from Roman Catholics.

In the quote above, the pope seems to contrast technical approaches and non-technical approaches to fixing water and sanitation problems. He emphasizes that the problems are at least in part cultural and educational. It seems the pope wants to make sure that in our push to install and improve water and sanitation systems that we do not merely focus on technical fixes. This is not just the view of a religious, non-technical leader, but also of scientists and engineers who often encounter non-technical roadblocks.

A 2013 study in Environmental Science and Technology Letters of 60 water and sanitation systems in India, Mexico, and South Africa agrees. The authors conclude that systems fail not because of technology per se but because of policies and weak institutional capacity. The pope, then, gets to the heart of why failure occurs in sanitation: inequity. And, that is another big can of worms that I’ll discuss about in future posts.

The second time the Pope mentions sanitation is here, partially quoting himself from 2013 (emphasis mine):

When the poor live in unsanitary slums or in dangerous tenements, “in cases where it is necessary to relocate them, in order not to heap suffering upon suffering, adequate information needs to be given beforehand, with choices of decent housing offered, and the people directly involved must be part of the process”.

Though somewhat indirectly, the pope here is talking about one means of providing sanitation to the poor: housing, either through development or relocation. By mentioning sanitation with housing issues, the pope highlights the complexity of sanitation provision. Land tenure, urban density, and landlord-tenant problems all compound the technical hurdles that planners and engineers must overcome to provide sanitation for the poor. Providing housing, then, can overcome some of these challenges as well as can improve quality of life in a variety of ways.

The pope also mandates how better housing and ultimately sanitation should be provided: through participation. Essentially, the pope advocates for the “politics of shit,” where the poor are “part of the process.” I believe that participation is great, but not always, and definitely not automatically. Participation is another topic that I’ll discuss more about in future posts.

Ultimately, as Gleik points out, much of the pope’s language is in line with the United Nation’s declaration on the human right to water. However, I must highlight what the pope and Gleik fail to mention: that the declaration is a human right to water and sanitation.

Maggie Black (writer) and Ben Fawcett (engineer) consider sanitation as “the last taboo.” If sanitation provision is a cultural and educational issue as the pope suggests, then making it more visible and less of a taboo is a major first step.

By mentioning sanitation in the encyclical, even if only a couple times and somewhat tangentially, I believe the pope gives talking about shit a bit of a holy touch and, therefore, some visibility.

As for the pope handing President Trump the encyclical earlier this week? Well, that was more like a holy slap.

[Feature image: flickr/Thomas Leuthard]

Cross-post from

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