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GUARDING THE WATER: Metro Detroiters need to conserve now, or pay with a shortage later, expert says


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 the world.

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 is survival."

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 charter school.

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," she predicted.

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 world.

"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."

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