Water, water

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(Host) Commentator Nil Daulaire says clean water in short supply in many parts of the world.

(Daulaire) At the height of the fighting in Baghdad, with bombs falling and machine guns firing nearly next door, people came out of their homes to plead with the Americans in the tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles.

They weren’t asking for an end to the fighting. There was something more important they had to say, something they were willing to risk their lives to ask for.

Water. They needed water.

In cities on the great Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, decades of war and mismanagement have cut millions of people off from supplies of clean, safe water for drinking, cooking and washing.

Though the task of repairing Iraq’s infrastructure is taking longer than optimistic war planners had hoped, it still appears that Iraq’s water woes are temporary. But access to safe water is a rare luxury for more than a quarter of the world’s people, in fact for the majority of people living in the world’s poorest countries.

More than two billion people don’t even have the most basic sanitation facilities. They live with their sewage and their drinking water sharing the same foul ditches. Women often walk miles a day to collect barely enough water for drinking and cooking, and certainly not enough for handwashing.

The result is nearly five million deaths each year from diseases such as diarrhea and typhoid fever, mostly among children.

Here in Vermont, in spite of last year’s drought, water is about as plentiful as any place on earth. Brooks and streams, ponds and lakes, rivers and the great lake we call Champlain make our landscape a moist oasis. Hidden rivers surge through the granite under our feet.

But we live in a time when human numbers, industry and negligence have polluted entire oceans. It’s no surprise, then, that even a well-watered New England state could find its resources threatened.

Today, one thousand miles of Vermont rivers, including all of the Connecticut, and scores of ponds and lakes — including all of Lake Champlain — still fail to meet basic water quality standards set by the Vermont Water Resources Board. The problems range from failing septic systems and wastewater plants — which force the closing of beaches and swimming holes – to heavy metals so toxic that we can’t eat the fish we catch. And while whole lakes succumb to the effects of agricultural runoff, insidious chemical plumes move underground from industrial sites to poison wells in our backyards.

What is surprising is how passively we seem to accept this gradual degradation. As Vermont grows, our water supply will only become more vulnerable. Only aggressive planning and oversight will keep growth and industry from polluting the very environment that draws so many to our state.

Clean water is a finite resource. It may not seem so in a Vermont summer thunderstorm, but we have only to turn on the television to be reminded of safe water’s scarcity. Between Champlain and the Connecticut, as between the Tigris and the Euphrates, it is possible to have water in abundance — and not a drop fit to drink.

We’ve made progress in Vermont, but there is still much to be done, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

This is Nils Daulaire in Norwich.

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