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Great Lakes Article:

Great Lakes: Water Worries

Worldwide, treat this resource as a matter of life, not profit

Posted Sept. 5, 2002

Seven gallons a day.

That's the amount of clean, fresh water considered necessary to meet the daily needs of one person. It's an amount that has to be available by the billions globally if water is deemed a human right, like the right to fresh air. And it's really a tiny amount, considering the average North American accounts for that much water use every half hour.

But even at a minimal level, the world has not decided that water is a basic right. If anything, the world is headed in the opposite direction: toward making water into merchandise that can be bought, sold, distributed for profit -- and withheld for nonpayment.

Here in the Great Lakes basin, the idea of freshwater as a commodity is offensive. Water is a natural resource, a common good and, in many ways, part and parcel of Michigan's identity. Michigan and the other Great Lakes states and provinces are also, finally, coming to grips with the need to manage the water in order to protect it.

In many other parts of the world, the idea of clean water as a commodity is offensive because people are dying without it. Some global progress has been made recently on improved sanitation, but more than half the people in hospitals worldwide still are believed to have illnesses attributed to bad water. Infants and toddlers are especially susceptible; dirty water leads to the death of 15 million preschoolers a year.

But getting everyone those seven gallons a day of clean water will be a hopeless goal if the world doesn't figure out how to sustain the resource. In most places, farming takes water out of underground aquifers faster than nature can replenish it. Rivers have been drained or used so hard in some places that freshwater barely reaches the sea.

At the World Summit on Sustainable Development now under way in Johannesburg, water is a major topic both for health and for agriculture. Good land and farm practices can make a huge difference, if the world has the will. But turning to private enterprise as the seeming savior shouldn't be part of the solution. The Great Lakes deserve better, and so do the poorest of the world's poor.

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