Salvaging our water commons: Greatest threat to humanity

Our water commons are under direct attack. Humanity is contaminating, redirecting, and extracting fresh water at rates impossible to sustain. Over one billion humans do not have access to water of acceptable quality – a child dies every few seconds from contaminated water, largely from waterborne diseases. Net human growth now exceeds 200,000 each day. In spite of occasional gains in certain areas of Europe and North America, surface waters globally are being damaged at accelerating rates by toxic contamination from industrial and urban pollution, infectious diseases, dam construction, irrigation, factory farming, forest and wetland destruction. Most ground waters are being exploited more rapidly than they are being replenished. The demands of burgeoning humanity for material goods contribute to the doubling of the per capita use of fresh water every two decades at a rate twice that of human population increase. Without question, the lack of available quality fresh water has emerged as the greatest threat to humanity and many other organisms.

Fresh water must be a global commons. Most humans view fresh water as a universal heritage of society. Humans value water in different ways but a dominant philosophy is that it is a human right to have access to quality fresh water. However, that ‘right’ is accompanied by a responsibility for wise use. In an increasing number of sectors, water is viewed as a tradable good and its use is determined by profit motivations. Selling water for human needs is rapidly becoming a global industry – although presently constituting only a few percent of the water used, profits are enormous and are rapidly rivaling that of petroleum. Private management of water resources based on scarcity and profit motivations rather than long-term sustainability encourages consumption at maximum rates. As a result, efficient use and conservation are not considered.

Our common societal heritage of fresh water demands ecological maturation in use of these finite resources. It is essential that the leaders in limnology – we practitioners of freshwater resources – assume leadership roles in demanding international condemnation of malicious and wasteful use of freshwater resources. That condemnation demands not simply criticism but leadership in offering solutions for ecological maturity in wisely using our public trust, the water as a common property of all. That leadership bespeaks for control and recycling of waste products, reclamation of polluted aquatic ecosystems, drip irrigation of the plant rhizosphere and not the air and soils, and minimizing water losses from municipal distribution infrastructure. Radical improvements in the efficiency of use of water and of water recycling in industry and agriculture can be done with enormous reductions in product costs while simultaneously reducing water demands. Effective management of drainage basins is a key to controlling water retention and minimizing contaminant runoff to surface and ground waters.

Fresh water is a common trust of humanity. We understand the complexities of biological metabolism that influence quality and long-term sustainability of water resources. We understand the management necessary to maintain an acceptable level of water quality. We understand that the cost of water use must reflect true environmental values – only then can we advance to the ecological maturity essential for sustainability of the rapidly expanding use of water by humanity. I urge the limnological community to move united, assertively, and with dispatch.

Robert G. Wetzel >>>
General Secretary and Treasurer