Drink It Up: Water & Health- (Un)Common, Priceless Commodities

When you grow up in northeastern U.S., you get to take water for granted. A person can get so used to rainy, drizzly, dreary days that you start to dream about hot, dry, clear-sky deserts, totally without mud to scrape or snow to shovel. Then you leave your hometown, travel a bit, maybe see a dusty, thirsty community struggling to survive, and realize what an incredible gift it is to have naturally abundant sources of safe, clean water.

Today - this very day - one billion people don't have any clean water to drink; they will go thirsty the whole day. In 2004, an estimated 2.2 million people around the world died from unsafe drinking water, and 90% of them were children under five. In my work at NRDC on global warming and health, I get to explore how global warming threatens to make matters even worse by increasing heat and drought, altering rainfall patterns, and in many places exacerbate this lack of access to abundant, clean water. Now those rainy New York days don't seem so bad after all, since they replenish our magnificent drinking water reservoir system.                                                         

As the World Water Forum wraps up a momentous week in Istanbul, some of my colleagues from NRDC are there to talk with others working on these issues. To help people understand the range of human health problems that are affected by global warming, back here at home NRDC's Global Warming & Health Project is working on two upcoming factsheets. These will detail the links between global warming, environmental changes, drinking water quantity and quality, infectious diseases, and health. One factsheet will consider how those factors affect harmful algal blooms; and a second will look at effects on waterborne illnesses, including cryptosporidiosis, giardiasis, and cholera.

In some parts of the U.S., water for drinking (as well as agriculture, tourism, etc.) is already in crisis, including much of the American West - California, for example. And projected global warming is likely to worsen the Western water situation. Yet in other parts of the country (like the lush northeast), it's sometimes a challenge to raise people's awareness that the global and national drinking water crisis is everybody's business.

Tonight, I'm going to go to eat dinner with friends at a restaurant that's part of the Tap Project, a group trying to help connect people to the world's need for safe water by giving patrons the chance to make a $1 donation (in lieu of the table water typically enjoyed for free). That dollar can provide 40 days' worth of clean drinking water for a child. This Sunday, March 22nd, is World Water Day -a good chance to find out more about global warming, health and water issues, or just be grateful when you turn on the tap to pour yourself a glass of cool, clear water.