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Let Clean Waters Flow

Neal Peirce / Mar 26 2009

For Release Sunday, March 29, 2009
© 2009 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceIn a first-ever pledge for American presidents, Barack Obama in his inaugural address included a promise to the world’s poor nations– “to work alongside you to … let clean waters flow.”

The moment is an acute one as the world faces “water bankruptcy” as threatening as today’s financial meltdown. The World Economic Forum, known for its annual meeting of business elites in Davos, Switzerland, is reporting that 2.8 billion people already live in areas of high water stress, a figure that could rise to 3.9 billion–over half the globe’s population–by 2030.

“We are living in a water ‘bubble’ as unsustainable and fragile as that which precipitated the collapse in world financial markets,” reports the Forum. It sees the world on the “verge of bankruptcy” in water supply.

Already, some 3 to 6 million people–the vast majority of them children, especially in Africa and the Asian subcontinent–are losing their lives to diarrheal and other waterborne diseases each year. A child succumbs to such diseases every 15 seconds. Overall water-related diseases (including dysentery, trachoma, guinea worm and malaria) kill more people every month than did the South Asian tsunami of 2004. Unsafe drinking water, reports the leading advocacy group, Water Advocates, also causes 4 billion debilitating bouts of illness worldwide annually.

The scourge falls heaviest on women; in developing countries they can spend up to 60 percent of their day on treacherous paths to find water–and even then often see their children fall ill. The burden of finding water leaves them no time to find work or gain an education. That, in turns, raises a major population control issue: “Mothers who fear death of their children bear more children in a desperate race against the odds,” notes Sen. Richard Durbin (Ill.).

But water scarcity poses huge added threats, Durbin asserts: undermining the world economy and threatening global security as nations or ethnic groups clash over dwindling supplies of fresh water and food.

The chief problem: countries across the continents waste vast amounts of water through inefficient practices. They dump–daily–about 2 million tons of human and industrial wastes and chemicals, along with agricultural discharges (animal waste, fertilizer and pesticides) into water supplies. And they’re allowing aquifers to be depleted and polluted, and the water levels of giant lakes to sink alarmingly.

In the meantime, growing threats from accelerating floods and droughts triggered by climate change, as well as rapid urbanization–especially the rise of megacities–darken the outlook still more. Sixty percent of China’s 669 cities, for example, are already short of water.

From Georgia to California, American regions are also having to face grim water futures. By some projections, water scarcity could cut world harvests 30 percent by 2030–even as human numbers and appetites increase.

We’re learning, as British journalist Geoffrey Lean notes, that this earth–this “blue-green oasis in the limitless black desert of space” –has a finite stock of water, and little time to correct its profligate ways.

Now a chorus of advocates is urging Obama to make good on his inaugural commitment.

In Congress, the “Paul Simon Water for the World Act” has just been introduced by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Donald Payne (D-N.J.), Sens. Durbin, Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.). It’s a follow-up to similar 2005 legislation, sponsored by Blumenauer and Durbin, honoring the late Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, a pioneer in declaring adequate supplies of water a critical issue for mankind’s future.

The Bush administration, while committed to fighting HIV/AIDS, barely moved on the water issue. The Obama administration has yet to focus clearly on a program. The omnibus budget act Congress recently passed included $300 million for world water issues–as Blumenauer puts it, “not huge in terms of need, but a quantum increase, setting the stage for more.” The new Simon Act aims to reach 100 million more of the world’s poorest people with sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015.

In an attempt to focus the federal effort, previously scattered across 15 uncoordinated agencies, the new bill also designates a high-level State Department official to help make water a priority foreign policy issue, and sets up a special water office in the U.S. Agency for International Development.

What American officialdom hasn’t noted, says Blumenauer, is the immense opportunity a strong U.S. global water policy can be: a nonideological way to benefit needy world citizens, bolster economies and sustainability, regardless of peoples’ gender, nationalities or faiths.

Indeed, it’s not just a nice idea but imperative the United States take a global leadership position on water, underscored the influential, Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies in a major declaration announced March 18. Former Senate Majority Leader William Frist (R-Tenn.) and Coca Cola Chairman E. Nevelle Isdell spoke championing the cause.

Washington’s been looking for a unifying bipartisan issue. Maybe this is it.


Neal Peirce’s e-mail is npeirce@citistates.com.

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