by Kathryn Murphy
May 19, 2009
Drought. It is a distant thought during the rainy days of a Chicago spring, with streets flooding and one fifth of the world’s fresh water supply sitting in our own backyard. But other areas are casting a covetous eye at Great Lakes water while experts say to start conserving fast.
“Think of it like a water bank account deposited by these glaciers” from thousands of years ago, said Peter Annin, author of “The Great Lakes Water Wars.” “Only 1 percent of the water in the Great Lakes Basin, just 1 percent, is renewed annually.” Annin warns that “we need to be absolutely certain that we don’t encroach upon the principle in that bank account.”
Living in the “Himalayas of water” as WGN radio host John Williams called it, doesn’t make Midwesterners immune from water conservation. Concerns are creeping up all around the world, as drought increases with global warming.
Hundreds of people crowded a panel moderated by Williams on “Sustaining our Blue Planet” at the Field Museum Wednesday night.
Look at places where rain is a “life giver or life taker,” said Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, and a member of the panel. Increased droughts and related crop crises are phenomenon that are “already upon us, but we haven’t really recognized it yet. ‘It’s not us, it’s them.’”
The Comer Education and Science Foundation is making an effort to change the “it’s not us” mentality and the foundation organized the panel at the Field. The Chicago-based foundation supports climate change research across the country.
“It’s about communication and trying to build awareness,” said Stephanie Comer, who runs the foundation and attended the museum event. “That’s really the long and short of it.”
U.S. lifestyles take few things for granted more than an ample, safe water supply.
“North Americans use more water per capita than anyone else in the world,” Annin said. “We need to do more as a continent to appreciate water, to understand that it is so precious and valuable and really start to lead the world in being a role model for water conservation.”
Steps in the right direction are being taken, especially in the Great Lakes Region. States and Canadian provinces bordering the lakes signed the Great Lakes Compact in 2005 to protect the water and President Bush signed the compact into law last fall.
“Throughout the negotiations of the Great Lakes Compact, the environment always had a seat at the table,” Annin said. “People have recognized that they want the lakes to have the water because that’s where it belongs. We will use it in a sustainable fashion and we will return the water to the lakes.”
While the efforts here may be beneficial to the Great Lakes, water is a complicated issue, and taking action in one region won’t make much difference in the long run, according to Sachs.
“We probably still have time, but just barely, to say that we’re going to work together, all countries, to try to prevent this from spinning out of control on a very crowded and interconnected planet,” he said. “But we’re certainly running out of time. That is what’s so hard for us to accept emotionally or intellectually, because we just don’t do things before the wall is hit.”
The solutions are complex, to be sure. Water is expensive to move, and it is expensive to pump, Sachs said. “It’s not like the wonder of a $1 malaria net.”
So why not charge to move the water? Economically, this may make sense.
“Let’s sell our water to the rest of the world like they sell us petroleum,” Williams offered as an idea to the panelists. “They need it, we’ve got it. It seems to work with the other liquid in the Earth.”
When dealing with water, however, there is a “complicated mass of problems,” Sachs said.
“If you price water that way, you actually price a lot of people out of life,” he said. “We have, therefore, with water, an issue of efficiency always intermixed with the question of fairness and justice, always intermixed with the question of today’s generation vis-a-vis future generations.”
The panelists offered no simple solution, because no simple solution exists, they said. Annin did, however, say that a large part of the future solution will come from an industry closely linked to the Midwest – agriculture.
“The largest consumer of water globally is agriculture. The largest consumer of water by far in North America is agriculture. And the largest consumer of water in the Great Lakes Region is agriculture,” he said. “So, any solution about the water issue is going to depend heavily on agriculture, and technological advancements and management advancements with water consumption.”
But don’t think that everyday citizens escape their individual responsibilities in water conservation. Annin and Sachs ended their discussion with advice for the audience.
“Become a better water citizen,” Annin said. This means finding out where your water comes from, and then using less of it. He suggested going over the water bill at family dinners, discussing and then shortening shower lengths, and watering your garden by hand.
Sachs’ advice focused on the individual’s responsibility to put pressure on politicians.
“We need to press [Obama] and press the Congress to make sure that we as a country now respond to these challenges,” Sachs said. “It’s extraordinarily important that we let our leadership know that we can’t go on with the mythology and the eyes closed that we’ve had.”