By Faustine Wabwire
I remember Rome like it was yesterday.
Last fall, in 2016, I had the pleasure of visiting Rome on pilgrimage and to soak in the majesty of the eternal city. As a first-time pilgrim, I marveled at the 17th century regal fountains of St. Peter’s Square, among other masterpieces. These memories remain very fresh in my mind.
That is why a news item of July 25, 2017, immediately caught my attention: The Vatican turned off all of its 100 fountains, including two Baroque masterpieces in St. Peter’s Square and interior fountains in the Vatican Gardens. The objective? To save water due to an ongoing prolonged drought. Did you know that the city of Rome is experiencing one of its worst droughts in decades? The drought is said to have affected almost two-thirds of Italy’s farmland as well as its capital, Rome.
It makes perfect sense to me.
Rome is not alone. Today, the effects of severe droughts are a shared experience of millions of children, women, and men. This year, droughts have brought millions to the verge of starvation. Drought is part of a wider-scale event sweeping across swathes of the Horn of Africa region, for example. In Somalia, the effects of three consecutive failed rainy seasons, coupled with the cumulative impact of more than 20 years of civil conflict, have meant severe water and pasture shortages in pastoral regions, decimated livestock, and reduced milk production. A people’s livelihood destroyed. Today, more than 6 million people in Somalia — half the population — need urgent humanitarian assistance. The most vulnerable populations in the most affected areas are living at a higher risk of starvation than others.
Looked at one way, we are at a crisis moment that should force us all to act. That is why, in my recent testimony before Congress, I emphasized that climate change is not a myth, that it threatens to undo the steady progress we have made against global hunger and extreme poverty. I have seen firsthand the devastating effects of climate change on communities that are already struggling with hunger. It is undercutting the gains we have made in development over the past decades.
Recently, I asked a mother of four in northern Kenya about her thoughts on climate change. She said, “It is destroying the dreams of my young family. I want to abandon this farm. It no longer produces enough to nourish my family … yet I have nowhere to go.”
Prolonged drought not only reduces the ability of households to feed themselves, but also erodes assets. The loss of valuable animals such as cattle makes it difficult for families to recover. It is still more difficult to be prepared for future droughts, floods, and other extreme weather events that have become more frequent due to climate change. Millions of people all over the world, particularly children, are suffering from these effects today.
To make matters even worse, current severe droughts are triggering disease epidemics such as cholera. In many of the areas affected by famine — in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, and northeastern Nigeria — inadequate quantities and quality of water because of drought, the inaccessibility of safe water sources due to ongoing conflict, and high water prices beyond the reach of many, has forced people to drink unsafe water. As a result, devastating outbreaks of cholera, a deadly water-borne disease, could kill thousands of people in all four countries.
The Vatican is doing its part to conserve water, which is a shared resource for all of us, no matter where we live. The dry fountains in Rome are telling us a bigger story.
The scientific evidence points to more frequent and prolonged droughts, both now and in the future. Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Si, released in June 2015, makes a strong moral argument for why all peoples must confront climate change. It makes a clear connection between changing global weather patterns and hunger. By shutting down the city-state’s 100 fountains, Pope Francis is again sending a message to all of us, especially world leaders, to pay close attention to the plight of the 20 million people on the brink of starvation — and to act. Large-scale, coordinated humanitarian assistance is critical to save millions of lives, especially those of children under 5, who are more vulnerable to death from malnutrition than older children and adults.
Faustine Wabwire is senior foreign assistance policy advisor in Bread for the World Institute.