Idalina Roia Alfai is normally busy in Africa, overseeing water, sanitation and hygiene projects in nine different countries, including in her own nation of Mozambique.

But March 22-24, she was busy at the United Nations Water Conference in New York, advocating for millions of people in Africa — and billions globally — who don’t have access to clean water or, in even more cases, access to basic sanitation.

The water conference was “really useful to see the commitment from different levels, from the government side, from (the) private sector, from NGOs, that commitment to reach … everyone, everywhere we work, to ensure that everyone has access to clean water,” Alfai told OSV News March 24 at the U.N.’s New York headquarters, where she and thousands of other water conference attendees were wrapping up three days of intense networking.

Alfai is a director of water, sanitation and hygiene for the Christian humanitarian organization, World Vision International, which has water-related programs in more than 40 countries globally.

“Water is life,” she said, adding that her work “aligned” with her Catholic faith and “that message that Jesus gave to us to support others, to ensure that we are helping the most vulnerable people.”

Two billion of the world’s 8 billion people — 1 in 4 — don’t have access to safe drinking water, and another 3.6 billion lack access to basic sanitation, according to the U.N. Water Development report for 2023, released March 21, a day before the water conference began. Nearly half the world’s people will suffer severe water stress by 2030, the report also states.

The conference was aimed at raising awareness for the global water crisis and deciding on action to achieve internationally agreed water-related goals by 2030.

The Vatican’s permanent U.N. observer, Archbishop Gabriele Caccia, reminded conference attendees that almost half the world’s population still lived in poverty, and that it was the poor who were suffering most from lack of water.

Referring to Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical letter on the environment, “Laudato Si’,” the archbishop said that even when water was available, millions of people only had access to unsafe water, resulting “in many deaths and the spread of water-related diseases.”

“Water is a source of life,” he said in his conference address on March 23.

“Therefore, recognizing it as a primary good that should be available to all impels us to develop and implement adequate policies that ‘ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all,’ he said, in reference to one of the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the U.N. General Assembly 2015, and which the U.N. hopes to achieve by 2030.

Brianna Fitzpatrick was also among the thousands present at the water conference, where she networked with other “like-minded” organizations set on reaching that goal of ensuring sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

“Our role goes far beyond the three days,” said Fitzpatrick, who is liaison to the U.N. for Caritas Internationalis, an international confederation of Catholic charities made up of more than 160 member organizations operating in over 200 countries and territories worldwide.

Fitzpatrick said the conference set the stage for “radical collaboration” among Caritas and other organizations in efforts to obtain sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, in part by encouraging U.N. member states and others to sign on to water-related commitments.

“And that is something that civil society can look at and say, ‘our government has promised to do this,’ and hold them accountable in an actionable way moving forward,” she told OSV News on March 24 from the Caritas Internationalis office overlooking the U.N.’s New York headquarters where the water conference was concluding.

And where U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres made a final impassioned plea for the world to reinforce “water’s place as a fundamental human right.”

Water, Guterres told the conference in his ending remarks, is “the most precious common good,” and “needs to be at the center of the global political agenda.”

— James Martone, OSV News