Saturday, March 22, 2008

Today is World Water Day

Whiskey's for drinkin', water's for fightin' over. --Mark Twain

"Anyone who can solve the problems of water will be worthy of two Nobel prizes -
one for peace and one for science." --John F. Kennedy

Let's cut to the chase. Life on earth would not exists but for two interdependent things - a thin layer of topsoil, and the fact that rain falls from the sky - and both are in peril due to climate change. Current estimates peg the number of people worldwide who don't have reliable access to clean, potable water at more than one billion, but if climate change raises the mean temperature two to three degrees above pre-industrial averages, that number will double, perhaps even triple. Currently, thirty countries are reliant on water supplies that originate outside their borders, and two-thirds of the people in the world will live in water-stressed nations by 2025. Water stresses have the potential to topple nations into instability, state failure, and chaos.

In other words, if you like the oil war, you are just gonna love the water wars that are coming down the pike if we don't get our collective act together and get on track to meet the millennium development goals set forth by the UN. One of those goals is to reduce by half the number of people worldwide who do not have access to fresh water by 2015.

Improvements made in water and sanitation systems are the most effective public health measures the world has ever seen. Clean water leads to decreases in child mortality and increases in overall health and wellness of entire communities.

Nearly ten million children under the age of five will die this year, and 17% of those fatalities will be from diarrhea and the resulting dehydration. The majority of those deaths could be prevented if clean water and adequate sanitation were the norm. When clean water and sanitation are introduced to an area, child mortality plummets.

Throughout history, water has been viewed as a common. Everyone realized that every man, woman, child and animal needed water to survive. Because of this, a communities water resources were seen to be owned by everyone, and no one, simultaneously. Because water is necessary to life itself, the most evil of all villains has always been the one who poisoned the well, because that act personified collective punishment and a total disregard for all life.

To commemorate World Water Day, twenty-seven international charities wrote a letter to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, demanding immediate action to provide clean water to the billion-plus people of the world who lack access to that basic requirement of life. The letter stressed both the health and the stability aspects of the looming water crisis. "Tackling the water and sanitation crisis is essential if the 'Millennium Development Goal Call to Action' is to be a success, otherwise progress on health, education and environmental sustainability will be undermined." Every year, children miss 443 million days of school to waterborne diseases that cause diarrhea. The lives of 1.8 million children are unnecessarily snuffed out from these diseases.

The charities appealed for a concerted effort on the part of the industrialized world to bring running water to the developing world and sanitation to an additional 2.6 Billion people.

And the benefits would be compound. The actions taken to improve health would contribute to stability of emerging economies in the developing world. "If we do not act, the reality is that water supplies may become the subject of international conflict in the years ahead. We need to invest now to prevent us having to pay that price in the future," stressing that an international effort is necessary to avoid a future in which competition for water resources leads to armed conflicts.

These problems are worthy of immediate, urgent consideration and action. We have a long ways to go; we have barely scratched the surface of what needs to be done, and we have to develop new technologies and new approaches. We also need to look at what we have that we might not be taking advantage of, like using "gray water" to water lawns and gardens. The quest for effective and efficient desalinization methods can't be abandoned - after all, as I learned in Physics 111 as a dewey-eyed Freshman a bazillion years ago, desalinization of sea water using fusion power is primordial, we just can't scale it down to a model smaller than the atmosphere, at least not efficiently. Yet.

I don't mean to be overly dramatic, and I am not prone to histrionics, but our future on this blue marble in space hangs in the balance. We need to do some brutally honest assessments and start making some responsible choices. I'm not counting on our gutless, clueless, scientifically illiterate "leaders" to step up on these issues - it is going to take us, dragging them along, kicking and screaming, because lets face it - there are going to be those who resist because it might hinder their bottom line, and people with those kinds of concerns are willing to spend a lot of money manufacturing opposition, if for no better reason than simply that they can.

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