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Steven Solomon

Steven Solomon

Posted: December 18, 2009 08:01 AM

Row For Water: Katie Spotz, Row, Row Our Boat

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As the throngs at Copenhagen pack their bags and disperse from the historic summit back to all corners of the globe, a lone young Ohio woman, Katie Spotz, 24, is getting set to start out on a solitary, sea level voyage to row across the Atlantic Ocean. Her purpose: To inspire at least 1,000 individuals to make $30 donations to San Francisco's Blue Planet Run Foundation, which will, in turn, be able to finance relief for a thousand of the one billion people on our planet who still lack access to the most essential resource for human life--safe, clean drinking water.

Such a small, individual contribution from an ordinary person without renown or celebrity may seem like a minuscule drop in the proverbial bucket. But every muscle-straining stroke Katie makes during her 70 to 100 day ordeal should be a reminder to those leaving Copenhagen and those they're rejoining back home that any path to reduce global warming and solve other monumental global challenges like freshwater scarcity necessarily begins with a simple personal commitment to ourselves to do what we can do in our own way every day. A million Katies, and the global crisis of clean, fresh drinking water can be solved.

Katie's solo journey is also a bleak warning that seven years after world leaders at the second Earth Summit at Johannesburg adopted the Millennium Development Goals of halving the proportion of people without access to clean drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015, little progress has been achieved. Some 2.5 billion people--40% of humanity--live without improved sanitation; two thirds of them in dirt-level poverty on less than $2 a day. As described in my forthcoming book, "Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization" (HarperCollins January 5, 2009), this sanitary divide is one aspect of the alarming crisis of global freshwater scarcity that is bifurcating human society into freshwater Haves and Have-nots. On one side of the divide are the relatively well-watered first world citizens with ample, reliable, clean piped water for domestic and economic needs, effective pollution regulations, modern filtration and waste water treatment; on the other are the water-famished in the poorest developing countries who spend hours each day foraging for water to survive, and whose daily lives are contaminated by chronic exposure to impure, disease-plagued water. Within many developing nations, the water poorest perversely often must pay a premium for their meager water--sometimes 5 to 10 times higher--because the more powerful invariably control locations closest to the best water sources, and in cities enjoy piped connections carrying government-subsidized water.

Waterborne diseases -- such as diarrhea, dysentery, malaria, dengue fever, schistosomiasis, cholera -- are by far mankind's most prevalent scourge, shortening and debilitating countless lives and weakening society's human capital and productive capacity to grow. Half the people in the developing parts of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean are estimated to suffer from diseases associated with inadequate water and sanitation. Often, the water destitute expend several hours each day simply fetching the family's water, which is very heavy to carry at 8 1/3 pounds per gallon, from the nearest potable source -- a burden that regularly falls on women and children, who sacrifice productive work and education to the process.

In our integrated global society, we all ultimately pay a price for the failure to provide adequate wholesome drinking water to everyone. Epidemic diseases do not stop at national boundaries, weakened and discredited states are unreliable partners in meeting international commitments, and failing ones are breeding grounds of regional instability, humanitarian crises, and terrorism. From the aqueducts of ancient Assyria and ancient Rome to the urban sanitary and public health revolutions that developed from early industrial 19th century London, provision of adequate clean freshwater has been the hallmark of robust and rising societies.

Today's global challenge to deliver sufficient wholesome water to the 9 billion that we're becoming by 2050 is, in the end, an early proxy test of human civilization's monumental survival challenge to develop new kinds of organizations, infrastructures and governing mechanisms capable of sustainably managing the Earth's total environment. If we can't deliver on drinking water, all of whose technical solutions are low tech and relatively inexpensive, more complex organizational problems like global warming are out of reach. Success, on the other hand, would likely help establish some of the cross border governing mechanisms, relationships and basic infrastructures that are now missing. One hopeful sign is that energetic grassroots organizations -- 350.org, water.org, Blue Planet Run Foundation, and many more -- driven by committed individuals are springing up to form new kinds of social webs. The pressures they exert may gradually filter up from below and ultimately compel governments to step forward and 'lead'.

Each pull of the oar Katie Spotz makes in her 2,500 mile ocean voyage represents a stroke of hope and determination that, somehow, we'll all make it to the other shore.