A Blue and Thirsty Planet

December 12, 1993|By SARA ENGRAM

Water. Cool, refreshing gulps of water. It's something Americans take for granted -- at least we once did. But this year, first Milwaukee and now Washington, of all places, have been the datelines for stories about unpotable water.

Throughout the District and parts of Northern Virginia last week, people were scrambling to obtain something as simple and essential as drinking water. Heavy rains had clouded the reservoirs serving the area, raising fears that contaminated water could make people sick. The warnings to boil drinking water for 10 minutes were precautionary, but they could also be seen as prophetic.

With its abundant supplies of water and, so far at least, a dependable public-works infrastructure, the United States is far

removed from the real water crises around the globe. We still think of oil as the natural resource we can't live without.

Increasingly, however, water is becoming a political flashpoint at least as volatile as oil. But however hard it may be to get through a day without gas or oil, that would be easier than doing without water. Take away all our oil, and we can muddle through for a while. Take away all water and we die.

Recently, Population Action International, a non-profit lobbying group in Washington, published a study of the mounting population pressures on Earth's limited supplies of renewable water resources. The basic statistics are sobering. There is enough water on Earth to cover the United States to a depth of 93 miles. But that illusion of abundance dissolves when one considers that renewable water resources -- the water nature makes available each year -- would cover the U.S. to a depth of only 15 feet.

Viewed from space, the blues of Earth's oceans would tempt one to call the planet Water instead. But ocean water is salty, unsuitable for drinking or watering crops. And much of the fresh water human life depends on is subject to political borders that don't show up in the blue-marble photos from space.

Indeed, in some parts of the world fresh water is already a political flashpoint. The Mideast is the most obvious example, where rapid population growth exacerbates the strains on limited water supplies.

For example, one of the region's three main river basins, the Jordan, is shared by Israel, Jordan, the occupied West Bank and part of Syria. That fact alone makes the peace process a matter of survival for all sides in the Mideast. Without peace, the region will never achieve the cooperation necessary to avoid deadly conflicts over water.

Population figures illustrate the problems ahead. In 1955, Earth's supply of fresh water had to support only 2.8 billion people. By 1990, it had to sustain 5.3 billion, and the strains were beginning to show. That year, according to the Population Action International study, 28 countries were experiencing stress on their water supplies and, in some cases, outright scarcity.

Some 335 million people were affected, and not all of them were in arid areas where water scarcity might be expected. Countries like Poland and South Africa were also having trouble providing enough fresh water to sustain human health and bolster economic development.

As population continues to grow, so do the strains on water supplies. By the year 2025, even with the United Nation's lowest projections, some 2.8 billion people will be facing either stress on their water supplies or outright scarcity. The countries in trouble could include Nigeria, with a projected population of 275 million, and Iran, which by then will probably be home to 137 million people. Haiti, already destitute, will be sinking under the weight of several million more people to support.

Scarcity aside, even adequate water supplies can threaten human life in the absence of infrastructures that assure purification and proper distribution -- and a populace educated enough to sustain the public health systems. Already, nearly half the world's population suffers from diseases linked to unsanitary water; young children are the most frequent victims.

The world is slowly learning the meaning of limits.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun. Her column appears here each week.

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