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Great Lakes Article:

World faces crisis over fresh water

Eric McGuinness, Environment Reporter
The Hamilton Spectator

Experts say the whole world -- including the Great Lakes Basin -- faces a crisis over the supply and quality of fresh water for drinking, growing food and manufacturing. Canadian Environment Minister David Anderson told participants in a global conference in Hamilton this week that "water will be overwhelmingly the issue of the 21st century, of the 100 years we are entering."

Margaret Catley-Carlson, a former Canadian diplomat who now heads the Global Water Institute, helped explain why. She noted that water tables are dropping and major rivers such as the Colorado -- which carved the Grand Canyon -- and the Yellow River, the cradle of Chinese civilization -- now dry up before reaching the sea.

She said one billion people lack consistent access to fresh water, two billion have no access to sanitation, many freshwater species are in peril as deltas and wetlands disappear, and water quality is declining everywhere.

Increasing population and increasing urbanization will make the situation worse in coming years.

Herb Gray, former federal cabinet minister and now co-chair of the Canada-U.S. International Joint Commission, listened to the gloomy statistics, then told Catley-Carlson her presentation "scared the hell out of me."

Michael Donohue, president of the Great Lakes Commission -- whose members include Ontario, Quebec and the eight U.S. lake states -- said developing countries face the most desperate problems, but the word crisis applies also to the developed world, "specifically the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence region."

While the Great Lakes Basin is one of the world's wealthiest places, holds a fifth of Earth's fresh surface water and has sophisticated governance systems, it faces threats to divert, export or otherwise consume water to an extent beyond its sustainable capacity.

Toxic hot spots threaten present and future residents, and air quality is so bad that the atmosphere is now to blame for more lake pollution than drain pipes, which used to be the bigger problem.

One of the conference's goals is to produce a statement to be sent to the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg at the end of August.

Anderson said the conference here on sustainable transboundary coastal ecosystems is an important lead-in to the summit which needs "a clear, concrete, action-oriented agenda" because "water and management of water systems and protection of watersheds have to be on the shortest of short lists."

Ugandan scientist William Michael Kudoja, who works on issues involving Lake Victoria, the world's second-largest freshwater lake, cited the 1996 world food summit in Rome and said, "We need to address water issues similarly."

He said there should be as much emphasis on water issues as on AIDS in developing countries.

"Water is life. It should be at the top of the agenda."

Catley-Carlson pointed out that water isn't even included in the New Plan for African Development (NEPAD), drafted by African leaders and up for discussion at this week's G-8 meeting in Kananaskis.

Kudoja said, "I weep," and Catley-Carlson said, "We weep together."

The Managing Shared Waters conference has drawn more than 400 people from 30 countries to the Hamilton Convention Centre. It is sponsored by Pollution Probe, Coastal Zone Canada and the Hamilton-based United Nations University International Network on Water, Environment and Health. It winds up Friday.

You can contact Eric McGuinness at or at 905-526-4650.

Managing Shared Waters conference site

Global Water Partnership

UN University, International Network on Water, Environment and Health

Johannesburg Summit 2002

Great Lakes Commission

International Joint Commission

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