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Originally published Monday, March 19, 2012 at 3:30 PM

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Life-sustaining water — a global and local concern

Water is a local issue, a children's issue, an equality issue, a food issue — in fact, as a concern it knows no bounds, says firefighter and guest columnist Mitzi Simmons.

Special to The Times

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EVERY firefighter knows, water saves lives. When a fire pump cavitates — known as "running away from water" — it makes an awful sound. It happens when the pump attempts to flow more water than the supply can provide.

Today, that sound is heard 'round the world as the Earth strains beneath the pressure of 7 billion people and their most basic need: water to sustain life.

Here in Seattle, water scarcity may not be high in our awareness. It should be. Globally, 783 million people live without access to safe water; 2.5 billion lack basic sanitation. Capacity is on the brink of being sucked dry. So, what can we do?

Water is a Seattle issue. Seattleites are used to helping: Look at our citizen-CPR program. We learn about a "chain of survival" — that we are all links in that chain, starting with one choice, one citizen, one phone call.

When a problem appears complex, for most of us, choices remain simple. As a firefighter I was taught: "Put the wet stuff on the red stuff" to put the fire out. Faced with "fire in the belly" — hunger — water is no less important.

Water is a food issue. Think about it: Water isn't just about what we drink. It's what we eat. The United Nations reports that producing 1 kilogram of beef consumes 15,000 liters of water. A kilo of wheat uses 1,500 liters, one-tenth as much. Agriculture consumes 70 percent of the world's water supply — meaning that what we eat has tremendous impact. Forgoing that hamburger is not only healthy for your heart; 635 gallons of water went into making it, compared with 10 gallons for a slice of bread. Our food choices matter.

Water is a women's issue. In Africa and Asia, women collect water for their families, walking miles to the nearest water source. Clean water close by helps protect women and girls from sexual violence.

Water is a children's issue. Each day, more than 3,000 children die from lack of clean water, succumbing to preventable diarrheal illness. And, not only are women the primary water bearers, the burden often falls on girls as young as 10. Water collecting keeps them from school. Poverty and gender inequality spiral, as education remains out of reach.

Water is an equality issue. Water is the great equalizer. It churns and flows to equilibrium, no matter the terrain. We all need it, no matter how rich or poor: Our bodies are 66 percent water.

Partnerships between governments, local communities and faith and civic organizations help to realize this equality, ensuring access to clean water and sanitation. On providing clean water, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says it "will allow you to save millions of lives, feed the hungry, empower women, advance our national-security interests, protect the environment and demonstrate to billions of people that the U.S. cares: cares about you and your welfare."

Water is a national-security issue. In terms of national security, potential conflict over scarce water resources could well trump the thirst for oil. Acting yields a tremendous return on investment. World Bank research has found an 800 percent return: For every $1 spent, $8 is recovered in saved health-care costs and increased economic productivity. You can act — by donating to a water charity.

It starts with community. When a community builds the solution, it creates ownership, ensuring a solution that is "real." A simple "rope pump," built and repaired locally, can keep the community well flowing.

Water is a finite issue. Unlike oil, there is no substitute for water. When a water pump breaks down, just like on a fire engine, lives are at stake.

We can all make a difference. Smarter food choices and saving water are local steps each of us can take. Nationally, encourage bipartisan support for the World Water Act. Globally, I encourage you to consider a water-based charity. Each drop will reach the same ocean.

Mitzi Simmons is a firefighter and freelance writer in Seattle. She volunteers with WaterAid (, a global water charity.

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