Every year 17 million women give birth in a hospital or a health clinic without safe water, soap and basic hygiene. No clean sheets. No shower. No toilets. That’s dangerous for both mother and newborn and a terrible situation that persists in secular and faith-based healthcare facilities around the world, including Catholic-run facilities. In fact, upwards of 50 percent of healthcare facilities are run by faith-based organizations in some regions.
A healthcare facility without Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (called WASH), creates an especially vulnerable situation for the sick and the poor, newborns, and women giving birth. Now the Catholic Church and Catholic organizations are working to change this massive global health crisis.
A 2018 report found that 50 percent of healthcare facilities in low- and middle- income countries lack piped water, 33 percent lack basic toilets, and 39 percent lack soap. Some two billion people have to use hospitals and health clinics without basic water services and 1.5 billion people have to use healthcare facilities without sanitation, according to the first global report released by the World Heath Organization (WHO) and UNICEF (April 2019).
This problem is serious and an historic convening on June 19 in Washington DC, seeks to prove it is solvable. The private and public sector came together to make nearly 80 wide-ranging and actionable commitments to getting WASH into healthcare facilities, so that no matter where one is born, this foundation for safe healthcare will be available to all.
But prior to this June event, the Vatican was already taking early steps as the first major faith-based institution to respond to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ Global Call to Action, offered before the General Assembly on World Water Day, March 2018: “We must work to prevent the spread of disease. Improved water, sanitation and hygiene in health facilities is critical to this effort. We cannot continue to take water for granted and expect to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.”
The Holy Father’s World Water Day Message in 2019 amplified the importance of water, consistent with his encyclical, Laudato Si, in which he not only made 47 references to water, but expressed particular concern for “the quality of water available to the poor.” The Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development added welcomed action, saying the Vatican would prioritize access to WASH “in healthcare centres (hospitals, clinics, outpatient dispensaries) owned and managed by the Catholic Church”. Comprehensively naming access to drinking water; sanitation that takes into account needs of people with physical disabilities; the state and maintenance of infrastructure; and hygiene procedures, the Dicastery called for measures “aimed at improving the aforementioned elements wherever needed.”
Then at the June 19 convening in Washington, important U.S. Catholic organizations joined in making commitments: Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Medical Mission Board, and the Loyola Foundation, as well as the Uganda Catholic Medical Bureau. This convening primarily engaged U.S. philanthropies, non-governmental organizations including many faith-based organization, corporations and universities, and included representative from WHO, UNICEF, World Bank and several U.S. government agencies. [Find the full list of commitments here.]
The nearly 80 commitments total over US$120 million, with millions more in technical assistance, research, training and maintenance, and advocacy. Tens of thousands of healthcare facilities across some 50 countries throughout Africa, Central America, South America and Southeast Asia stand to benefit when commitments become on-the-ground reality.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres, a practicing Catholic himself, opened the June event by pre-recorded video and was accompanied by other Catholic dignitaries like the First Lady of the Republic of Colombia, María Juliana Ruiz, who announced a Latin American First Ladies Initiative, “I call on First ladies through Latin America to join me in championing this cause. Our children must have the opportunity to grow up strong and healthy, nourished, and free of preventable diseases.” The Hilton Foundation, which also funds the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters, is a global leader in safe water initiatives. Hilton President, Peter Laugharn, offered the keynote and a $13.5 million commitment that included developing a new model of partnership and collaboration at regional levels in six countries to tackle the pervasive problem of sustainability at the local level.
The U.S.-based Catholic Medical Mission Board (CMMB) committed to raising more than US$1.6 million for WASH in healthcare through its signature program called “CHAMPS” — Children and Mothers Partnerships. CEO, Bruce Wilkinson, is passionate about being part of the solution: “The most basic requirement is safe access to enough clean water and to improved sanitation facilities—because without these building blocks, every other healthcare investment we make is undermined. Proven, cost-effective solutions are available, but implementing them will require that multiple sectors work together. Global leaders are now making this collaboration happen. The faith-based health facilities are willing and are key to providing clean water and sanitation.”
For over a century, CMMB has worked to strengthen and support communities through global healthcare programs. With its new strategic focus on women and children’s health, CHAMPS partners with communities, corporations, health systems and governments to provide clean water, latrines and sanitation services to healthcare facilities in Haiti, Kenya, Peru, South Sudan and Zambia.
Catholic Relief Services (CRS) was founded in 1943 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and is a member of Caritas International, the worldwide network of Catholic humanitarian agencies. Focusing its efforts on Madagascar, Ghana, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso and the Democratic Republic of the Congo over the next five years, CRS is targeting over 300 healthcare facilities with direct intervention using the “Clean Clinic Model” distributed by the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID. This approach seeks to strengthen health systems by not only working with individual facilities, but also local and regional governing bodies to identify and prioritize needs and budget for them. Importantly, CRS also aims to influence national health and water policies.
The Loyola Foundation is a family foundation established in 1957 by Albert G. McCarthy, Jr., a Catholic American lawyer and real estate developer. Mr. McCarthy traveled extensively and witnessed the work of the Catholic Church overseas. He resolved to give back a portion of the blessings God had bestowed on him, and provide future generations of his family with the opportunity to become educated and responsible Catholic philanthropists.
To date, The Loyola Foundation has awarded more than US$50 million in small grants benefiting some 6,000 projects around the world. While WASH in healthcare facilities is not a specific focus of the foundation’s mission, all previous requests for funding for Catholic healthcare facilities have now been evaluated with the understanding that grant recipients will incorporate clean water, hygiene and proper waste disposal into their work. The foundation says, “It is imperative that life-saving work be performed in secure, modern and sanitary facilities.”
The Uganda Catholic Medical Bureau (UCMB) is a large component of the public health system in Uganda, with 32 hospitals, 258 health clinics and over 8,566 health workers in its network. UCMB pledged to support WASH in all of its healthcare facilities by assessing, supervising and training all levels of facility staff. UCMB will also use church structures to continue its advocacy for WASH in healthcare facilities.
Given the important and widespread role Catholic healthcare facilities play on the frontlines in global health throughout the developing world, Catholic leadership and engagement will prove exceptionally important in making safety and dignity a healthcare reality.
About the Author:
Susan Barnett, a former journalist, founded Faiths for Safe Water, one of the only advocacy projects to focus the multi-faith voice on the global water crisis. Faiths for Safe Water encourages all faiths to unite around water, our only shared symbol, and embody interfaith at its life-giving best. More information at: Faiths for Safe Water and Cause Communications.