Fresh Water 2000: Same Numbing Song, only Louder

As we enter the new millennium, everywhere the same theme prevails – predictions of where we will be in the new century and what a wonderful prognosis lies ahead. These are indeed exciting times, as the technological capacities of humanity reach ever higher levels of improvement and increasing rates of change. Underlying these changes, however, are enormous responsibilities to provide some degree of equity over the long term.

To reiterate problems facing humanity is becoming passé – apathy prevails as one technological fix after another applies a bandage to a hemorrhage to temporarily stave off the inevitable in our present course. The human population continues to increase in log phase, but certainly will stabilize in the next century either by intelligent choice or natural catastrophe. As Robarts and I wrote in the accompanying issue of the SIL Newsletter, the finite water supply continues to be exploited far in excess of availability, particularly in developing countries where most of the population increases are occurring. Despite some gains in improved water quality in certain developing countries, water quality globally continues to be degraded at prodigious rates. That continued degradation of water quality from excessive use and misuse is resulting, directly and indirectly, in millions of human deaths annually. The disparity between the comfort and excitement of the technological ‘haves’ and the desperate conditions of the ‘have nots’ in a survival mode continues to enlarge as we enter the new millennium. As the water resources continue to be degraded, the tragedies of associated losses, such as biodiversity, pale in comparison to the levels of unnecessary human suffering now and particularly in the near future.

The foremost critical natural resource issue facing humanity in the next century is the availability of quality fresh water. Rather than continue to lament in dismay at the magnitude of the problems, it is essential that actions be taken. Arguments that the problems are so serious and the level of degradation has reached such a level that we can only respond in some holding action are false. Where degradation and damage has occurred, restorative action must be taken to improve conditions to some acceptable level. However, restoration of damaged aquatic ecosystems is thermodynamically and economically a loser, and can only be done effectively at much energetic cost, usually more than a factor of 10, than preventing the damage by means of efficient use and suppression of degradation. Prophylactic actions by means of efficient and non-degrading use of extant water resources can reduce water consumption and demands by greater than 50 per cent without any significant loss of standard of living.

Institution of such efficiency of use of freshwater resources requires leadership. What better leadership than by limnologists that understand the operation of the biological constructs of freshwater ecosystems? The activities of SIL enhance the capabilities of limnologists in their understanding. The onus, however, remains with us, the lake and river ‘doctors’, to carry that understanding to the public for implementation. The responsibilities to address the unprecedented stresses rest not with technology or with governments, but with us to assume the leadership for sage and efficient utilization of finite freshwater resources in the next century.

Robert G. Wetzel >>>
General Secretary and Treasurer

Robarts, R.D. and R.G. Wetzel 2000. The looming global water crisis and the need for international education and cooperation. SILNEWS 29:1-3