Sep 06, 2005

The Water Century

Industry must address the on-going and deepening water crisis looming over the entire planet

Last year’s South Asian tsunami, with its huge toll on human life and the desperate struggle of millions to survive the aftermath, offers a grim reminder of the tenuous threads supporting our existence.
Television images from the scene of becalmed tropical blue water and sun-drenched beaches were a bitterly ironic contrast to our realization that the biggest threat to those who survived amid the chaos was finding clean, safe fresh water. This disaster must also serve as a wake-up call for us to address the on-going and deepening water crisis looming over our entire planet.
More than 200,000 lives were lost in the tsunami. Yet, each month water shortages, dirty water, and inadequate ways of delivering water mean that at least 165,000 die of malaria and 140,000 will die of dehydration and diarrhea.
In fact, water-related diseases kill 4 million children under the age of five every year.
The enormous challenge of providing safe water to the victims of one disaster is dwarfed by the challenge of saving 4 million children and perhaps 3 million adults every year from water-related deaths.

Addressing problems

Clean water is not the only problem. Waste is another. Agriculture uses 70% of our fresh water with shocking inefficiency. Irrigation, whether in developed or developing countries, is often the cause of run-off, salinization of the soil, drying rivers and desertification. The fact that much of the Fertile Crescent is now desert is proof of the dangers of waste and unwise irrigation.
Shortages, whether caused by waste, limited supply or poor agricultural or manufacturing processes, tie directly to another threat in our water century.
Remember for a moment the energy crises of the 1970s. After the initial shock, we had time to respond and adjust to shortages. There is no “debate time” when water is cut off. Water wars may replace the oil wars of our past century if we do not use foresight and plan carefully.
So where does this leave us? We are already facing a water crisis. Lives are being lost in astonishing numbers. Economies are negatively affected. Growth is stunted. This is not an example of the randomness of life but of a clear pattern of related events directly affecting all of our future.

Challenges faced

Our challenges in addressing the crisis are as complex as our modern world. We are quick to respond to “immediate” disasters that make the TV news, yet we don’t acknowledge on-going disasters such as the fact that one child dies every eight seconds because of lack of clean, safe water. We expand our global vision to see the inefficiencies of villages which depend on women carrying water long distances to their homes, but don’t see that our own developed countries are increasingly doing the same.
Who reading this has not carried bottled water because he or she no longer trusts the local supply?
How many of us have redefined “normal” to include water home delivery services and purifiers on kitchen taps?

There is much to be done and much we can do.

We can improve methods of using water in manufacturing and agriculture; that is already beginning to happen but must happen still more and more consistently. We can look at new ways to provide clean water to more people; it is possible but not happening often enough. We can use new energy-efficient and cost-effective technologies, including desalinization, to avoid new shortages.
But none of these responses can be random. It is time for a national and international commitment to the water century to provide clean, safe water, appropriately managed and conserved for the good of all.
There is no single place in the U.S. government to get a comprehensive view of water policy and issues. There is no consortium of businesses addressing water needs and opportunities. Water must become a priority.
Our Congress is an appropriate starting place. Lawmakers should review local and national policies for ways to improve national policy, consider ways to increase revolving funds as sound “water improvement loans,” and find ways to make policy and practice part of an integrated whole. Local politicians, city planners, farmers, agri-businesses, manufacturers and citizens must be equally involved in water planning and decision making that transcend community and country. Only then can we meet the challenges of our water century.
The signs of crisis are all around us. These are not random occurrences; they are easy to see and even to act on, if we only will.

About the author

Steven R. Loranger is chairman, president and CEO of ITT Industries, Inc. He can be reached at 914/641-2000.

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