Monday the 22nd, World Water Day, marked the launch of World Water Week 2010 – not a bad time to check in on the liquid state of things here on planet earth. Established during the United Nations Environment Programme’s 1992 conference in Rio de Janeiro, World Water Day takes a different theme each year. Last year’s was “transboundary waters: sharing water, sharing opportunities.” Before that (2008) was “sanitation,” and before that (2007) was “copinng with water scarcity.” This year, the UN decided to return to a 2008-reminiscent, sanitation-related theme, with “clean water for a healthy world.”
The UN has chosen to quasi-return to a just-used theme because the situation is so dire: more people are losing their lives today to dirty water than to war and violence, and every 20 seconds, a child dies from water contamination and poor access to clean water.
“Day after day,” read UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s statement on Monday, “we pour millions of tons of untreated sewage and industrial and agricultural wastes into the world’s water systems. Clean water has become scarce and will become even scarcer with the onset of climate change. And the poor continue to suffer first and most from pollution, water shortages and the lack of adequate sanitation.”
And water contamination isn’t just a third world issue. Earlier this month, about 117 million Americans may have seen the glasses of (relatively) clean drinking water swiped right out of their hands. The Clean Water Act, one of our country’s most important pieces of environmental legislation, had just been debilitated by a terrifying Supreme Court decision – the court had undermined the EPA’s power to regulate where major polluting companies can and can’t dump their industrial byproduct and sludge. It was a major step backwards in American environmental legislation, and does not bode well for the future of drinking water quality across our nation. Industrial sludge in drinking water won’t take a life as quickly as will a fatal case of diarrhea acquired in Kibera slum, Nairobi, but it can certainly set the wheels in motion.
The wars of the 21st century will be fought over water, not oil, UN Water Advisor Maude Barlow has been warning for decades. And those wars – some of which have already occurred (Bolivia) or begun – will impact every life on this planet.