GUARDING THE WATER: Metro Detroiters need to conserve
now, or pay with a shortage later, expert says
BY HUGH MCDIARMID JR.
The Great Lakes could be a battleground for brutish
freshwater politics within 25 years, a United Nations
consultant warned Friday.
Stella Thomas, a Grosse Pointe Woods native and expert
in international water issues, said freshwater already
is a powerful social and political commodity in most of
In Michigan, where it is taken for granted, it will
evolve into an issue that will test the skill of politicians
and the expertise of scientists, she said.
"Water can be a catalyst for conflict or a lubricant
for peace," she said during an International Water Day
conference on Belle Isle.
In the Middle East and Africa, control of scarce freshwater
is already part of the complex equation of power and conflict.
"The politics of water are the same as the politics
of oil," Thomas said. "The Palestinian Authority competes
with Israel over Jordan River resources. To Israel, water
is national security. To the Palestinian Authority, it
More than 1.5 billion people do not have access to safe
water, Thomas said. That number grows daily as the world's
population rises, water pollution spreads and the amount
siphoned for agriculture and manufacturing increases.
"Detroit can be in this same situation in 25 years,"
she told the audience of educators, civic leaders and
students from the Sankore Marine Academy in Detroit. "Already,
many states in the U.S. are in a state of drought, which
many people don't even realize."
Water has been part of Thomas' life from childhood.
She was raised a stone's throw from Lake St. Clair and
spent summer vacations along Lake Michigan in Charlevoix.
She sailed, fished and swam.
"I always took the water for granted," she said. "Then
when I traveled to Third World countries and saw people
irrigating their land with buckets of water, I realized
how important it was."
Americans are blissfully unaware of the crisis, using
an average of 92 gallons of fresh water daily, compared
with 44 gallons for Europeans and 5 gallons in Africa.
Thomas, 32, now lives in New York where she works for
the United Nations and is finishing a book and her PhD
in international relations and diplomacy.
Her expertise in water issues has been used by NATO,
the European Space Agency, the World Bank and the Western
European Union, among others.
She was invited to help give Sankore students a more
global perspective, said Arthur Carter, manager of the
Thomas said Great Lakes residents would be wise to invest
in scientific research and water-conservation technology
now -- before they are pressured to siphon water to other
states or even other countries.
"We won't know what's happening until it's too late,"
Issues like Perrier's construction of a plant to draw
water from an underground spring near Big Rapids will
seem like small potatoes, she said. So will water and
sewer rate increases that seem outrageous to many metro
Detroiters but would be a bargain in most places of the
"There are solutions," she said, speaking of desalinization
plants for seashore communities, better water conservation
methods and smarter farming and manufacturing tecniques.
When she comes to the metro area, she stays with her
parents in Grosse Pointe Woods. She still jogs along the
lakeshore, but with a new perspective.
"The water washes away worries," she said. "But now
it creates new ones."