By Carol Glatz, Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The real battles people should be fighting and funding are the ones against hunger, thirst, poverty, disease and slavery, Pope Francis said.

Instead, vast sums of money are spent on arms for waging war, which is “a scandal” that just drags civilization backward, he said in an address to a group of Italian volunteers.

“What is the point of all of us solemnly committing ourselves together at international level to campaigns against poverty, against hunger, against the degradation of the planet, if we then fall back into the old vice of war, into the old strategy of the power of armaments, which takes everything and everyone backward?” he asked.

The pope made his remarks in an audience at the Vatican March 21 with volunteers representing the Italian organization “I Was Thirsty.” Founded in 2012, the group sets up projects that provide clean drinking water to communities in need around the world.

The United Nations estimates more than 2 billion people live without access to safe drinking water and/or sanitation. The U.N. promotes World Water Day every March 22 to raise awareness about the importance of potable water and the need to manage freshwater sources sustainably.

The pope praised the Italian volunteers for their small but vital contribution to an issue of critical importance “for the life of the planet and for peace between peoples.”

All life on Earth depends on water, he said, so “why should we wage war on each other over conflicts that we should resolve by talking to each other?”

“Why not, instead, join forces and resources to fight the real battles of civilization together: the fight against hunger and thirst; the fight against disease and epidemics; the fight against poverty and modern-day slavery,” he said.

Not all choices are “neutral,” he said, such as the choice to allocate a large percentage of a national budget on arms, which means taking resources away from those who lack basic necessities.

People need to realize that continuing to spend money on weapons “dirties the soul, dirties the heart, dirties humanity,” he said.

In a separate message written on behalf of Pope Francis, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, said managing the world’s water resources in a sustainable and cooperative way across national boundaries helps contribute to peace.

“Water is a valuable asset for peace. As a result, it cannot be considered simply as a private good, generating commercial profit and subject to the laws of the market,” the cardinal wrote in a written message March 21 to those taking part in the World Water Forum in Dakar, Senegal, March 21-26. The forum focused on the role of water security in building peace and development.

The right to drinking water and sanitation is closely linked to the right to life, the cardinal said, and “water is a gift to us from God” meant for all people and generations.

It is the pope’s desire, he said, that the forum be an opportunity for people to work together to guarantee the right to drinking water and sanitation for every person and, as a consequence, to make water “a true symbol of sharing, of constructive and responsible dialogue” that promotes peace and is built on trust.