2003 is the International Year of Fresh Water.(www.wateryear2003.org). On October 16, the Dag Hammerschuld Auditorium was the setting for a briefing entitled WATER OF LIFE; FRESH PERSPECTIVES ON THE WORLD’S WATER CRISIS. The hall was filled to capacity with many seated in the aisles. The briefing, and day-long program, one of the most inspiring ever, came about because of the networking efforts of Martha Gallahue of the National Service Conference of the A.E.U. with the U.N. Department of Social Affairs, the Values Caucus, and the Earth Values Caucus cooperating to bring an ethical perspective to this vital issue.
All of human life depends on fresh water. Unevenly distributed throughout the world, some countries have it in abundance, others are severely deprived. With every flush of a toilet, we in the richer countries use up the same amount of water used by an average person in the developing world for every need in a day. Unsafe water and sanitation cause an estimated 80% of all disease in the developing world. Some 6000 children die every day from diseases associated with unsafe water and poor sanitation hygiene. Girl children are often not permitted to attend school because of the unsafe conditions caused by lack of proper latrines. Water used for irrigation can be unavailable because of cost, or is unfit for drinking. Women, the water carriers and primary users of water, bear the greatest burden of its misuse and scarcity.
Clearly, increasing the supply of water and maintaining its purity is a matter of life and death. Dr John Todd, a professor at the University of Vermont, and founder of Water Stewards, Inc, is a water doctor who goes to places where bad water can be treated by applying the wisdom of ecology to provide low cost and sustainable solutions. (www.waterstewards.org). A ribbon of plants, which flourish on sewage, has transformed Fu Jong, a city in China with streets fouled by a sewage canal, protecting the cleanliness of estuaries and bays. Ecological principles can help American industry — a highly polluted area surrounding a chicken factory was inexpensively converted to a beautiful clean lagoon when its bottom was seeded with kelp. In water-starved Kenya, the construction of dirt pans to collect rain water has the extra benefit that the moist soil surrounding these mini-reservoirs produces fertile kitchen gardens. Similar projects are taking place in Nepal and India. With political will South Africa has performed the remarkable feat of making fresh water available to half of its deprived population, an enormous improvement in seven short years.
In spite of the beautiful blue that astronauts see as they approach from outer space, with 70% of the world’s surface covered in water, only 2.5% is fresh water, and three-quarters of that is frozen in ice caps. 40% of the world’s population is now living in areas with moderate-to-high water stress, and water use is increasing faster than population growth. Only a few countries are wealthy enough to use desalination. Kuwait, Japan, and Italy, as well as the United States, use some desalinated water. Saudi Arabia uses desalination to meet 70% of its drinking water needs. Desalination will become cheaper with increased demand and improved technology. But poorer countries can not afford this sophisticated method. However the simpler technology of inexpensive ecological principles can provide a whole new avenue for projects at municipal levels, or for industry with serious problems, as well as countries that choose to make a national policy of a biological approach. Whatever the method, cooperation between private industry and government presents challenges of fair distribution as well as cost. Government must ensure that private sector participation does not enrich the few at the expense of the many. As Gandhi has said, “Nature has enough for our need, but not enough for everybody’s greed.” Solutions do exist. An ethical perspective joined with technical ingenuity and practical will, can do what needs to be done.
Sylvain and Phyllis Ehrenfeld
IHEU Representatives to the UN & the AEU Nat’l Service Conference