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
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.