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Originally published April 10, 2009 at 2:37 PM | Page modified April 10, 2009 at 4:32 PM

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Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist

The U.S. not immune to global water crisis

Based on a Government Accountability Office report, there's a real chance that 36 states will soon face water shortages through a combination of rising temperatures, population growth, urban sprawl, waste and excess.

Syndicated columnist

Top-level global attention is shifting to the world's waters: Will supplies and quality be enough to sustain the world's growing billions of people in this flood- and drought-challenged century?

The World Water Forum, which drew 33,000 people to Istanbul last month, focused on the extreme water crisis already facing mankind. Attendees favored declaring clean water and sanitation a basic universal human right. The United Nations issued its third major call for global action on the issue. A communiqué of the prestigious Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies recommended that water policy be made a cornerstone of U.S. international initiatives. Important new legislation to boost our international efforts — called the Paul Simon Water for the World Act, in memory of the late Illinois senator — was introduced in Congress.

But just as all politics is local, all water challenges are also local — or close to it. We Americans know the issue as an enduring point of tension among states of our arid Southwest that are obliged to share the limited water flow of the Colorado River. A severe drought in the Southeast has exacerbated tensions among Georgia, Alabama and Florida over who gets how much of water flowing through Georgia on its way to the Gulf of Mexico.

Based on a Government Accountability Office report, there's a real chance that 36 states will soon face water shortages through a combination of rising temperatures, population growth, urban sprawl, waste and excess.

One example: the Charlotte metro region, on the North Carolina-South Carolina border. It faces a grim future as the once free-flowing Catawba River, water source to 1.2 million people, is so silt-impacted from rapid real-estate development, its banks so eroded, demand for its waters so high, that the American Rivers group has declared it the nation's most imperiled river.

We Americans have come to expect clean and available water for so long, notes David Douglas of the nonprofit Water Advocates, that we instinctively resist paying the massive costs for new systems, disregarding crucial drought and system-failure warnings.

Clearly, Americans need to be jolted into comprehending the massive peril of worldwide drought and the immense dangers of disease from unclean waters and sanitation afflicting people of Africa, Southeast Asia and other developing parts of the world. Unsafe water and sanitation trigger waterborne diseases that take 3 million to 6 million lives — a vast majority of them children — each year.

To get us thinking, Population Services International recently celebrated World Water Day (March 22) by collaborating with 13 international health organizations to mount a series of edgy videos by the GOOD media firm aimed especially at younger audiences. The videos weave filthy water images into iconic moments in film and television such as "Psycho" and "Crocodile Mile" (

Lots of advocacy groups have sprung up — among them Water Advocates, the World Environmental Federation, Food & Water Watch, Water for People, and the Water Environment Federation.

Plus fascinating grass-roots efforts are sprouting. Two years ago, teacher Patricia Hall at the Highview Middle School in New Brighton, Minn., got the idea of helping a struggling school in Kenya with its problems of water supply and replacing filthy latrines. Her students, she reports, "showed skills, amazing passion for the project," raising funds that were then channeled through an international nonprofit group.

Hall's model has caught on — from 16 schools raising up to $10,000 for partner schools last year to 115 this year, working through such groups as Save the Children (Mexico, South America, Philippines, Haiti, Afghanistan), Water Centric (India), and Africare (Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and Malawi).

Locally, globally, from clean rivers to sanitation, one suspects water issues will keep resurfacing as a prime challenge of the century.

Neal Peirce's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is

2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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