Precious liquid

March 13, 2003

EVEN AS THE world swings to the tune of oil, shortages of an even more essential liquid - drinking water - loom as one of this century's major worldwide problems.

For now, the world water crisis is largely concentrated in developing nations. But from North China, where the water table is dropping about five feet a year, to Baltimore, where reservoirs last fall hit a historic low, the prospect of running short of water is becoming less and less theoretical.

"The 21st century is one in which the overriding problem is one of water quality and management," says a new U.N. report, the most comprehensive look at world water to date. The United Nations, declaring 2003 the Year of Freshwater, holds a 100-nation water conference next week in Japan.

The U.N. report paints a bleak future with increased potential for regional conflicts as water supplies are strained by population growth, overdevelopment, pollution, poor infrastructure, growing irrigation and waste. The report's findings should serve as a wake-up call, even in this water-rich region:

The Earth's 6 billion inhabitants are using more than half its freshwater. By 2025, that will jump to 70 percent. By 2050, more than half the world will face shortages.

More than a billion people lack clean water, and twice that lack sanitation facilities. Two million tons of sewage a day foul eight times that amount of freshwater.

More than 2 million people, most of them children, die each year from contaminated-water diseases and poor sanitation.

Per-capita water use is falling in parts of the developed world due to conservation, but developed nations' per-capita water use is 30 to 50 times that of developing nations. Worldwide consumption has doubled in the last 50 years and grows every year.

Grave water problems - including political conflicts - may seem removed from America and, particularly, the mid-Atlantic. But Western states have been battling over Colorado River water for decades, with the federal government recently ordering Southern California to reduce its draw 25 percent by 2015. And closer to home, Maryland and Virginia are now in court over control of intake from the Potomac River, a face-off partly spurred by Northern Virginia's rapid increase in water use.

During last year's severe drought, wells failed all over Central Maryland. Baltimore's reservoirs, serving much of the metropolitan area, dropped to 42 percent of capacity by mid-October, an all-time low and only a 30- to 35-day supply. With the Susquehanna River running too low to provide backup, George Winfield, the city's public works chief, says he feared then that water might have to be shipped into the city.

The city's reservoirs now approach normal levels, but the lesson of the last drought shouldn't be forgotten, says Mr. Winfield, who has launched an "aggressive" search for new long-term water sources for the city - including the possibility of costly plants to remove salt from Chesapeake Bay water.

With Maryland virtually defined by water, it's inevitable this life-sustaining resource might be taken for granted. This region's now-disappearing drought - and the recent worldwide U.N. report - are reminders that that would be a big mistake.

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