What's up with water?

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The theme of the week I just spent at the Chautauqua Institution in northwestern New York was water: "Water matters," we were told, convincingly.

Chautauqua has been around for 138 years and every summer dishes up an impressive roster of speakers week after week to address important topics from different points of view.

I learned a lot about water. The National Geographic Society collaborated with Chautauqua in mounting water week, assuring a high level of scholarship, speakers with worldwide experience and the beautiful photographs for which the society and its magazine are so well known.

Unfortunately, both organizers were either too subtle, too gun shy about politics or simply unwilling to address two aspects of U.S. policy that were obvious outgrowths of the presentations they sponsored. These were the weak U.S. record on designating protected maritime zones and the shocking role of Congress -- specifically, the Republicans in the Senate -- in continuing to withhold U.S. approval of the Law of the Sea Treaty.

Fresh water in lakes, rivers and swamps comprises only 0.0007 percent of the water on Earth. Man depends on it for agriculture, unless we get into expensive water acquired by desalinization. We are busily draining our aquifers. Then there are the pipelines and fracking. I still resist the thought of showering with bottled water. The biggest single user of freshwater is energy production.

Oceans matter. Uncontrolled fishing, rendered very difficult to manage by inadequate regulation -- there's that word -- is basically trashing the world's fisheries. We have eaten some 90 percent of the essential large ocean predators. The peak for fish was 1950, 62 years ago. The baseline for fish can only be described as grim. The only hope for rejuvenation of the world's fish supply can be seen in the remaining "pristine" areas, less than 5 percent of the oceans, and "no take" fishing areas.

Marine reserves are the answer. They don't even cut substantially into the fishermen's take since fish are abundant in proximity to them. One percent of the ocean is protected; 0.5 percent is fully protected. We need 20 percent, said Dr. Enric Sala of National Geographic. That would cost $16 billion per year. We now spend $35 billion per year on subsidies to fishing.

Within the U.S. 200-mile exclusive economic zone only 3.1 percent of the waters are designated as reserves. In other words, peanuts in terms of need. U.S. fishermen lobby to prevent the creation of protected areas. Members of Congress from coastal states do their work for them in Washington.

Competition for water is the basis for some of the most intense international quarrels. According to Don Belt of National Geographic, the first water war occurred in 2525 B.C. between Umma and Lagash in what is now Iraq. Long-term prospects for international conflict exist around Lake Baikal in Russia, the Indus River basin in India and Pakistan, in Bangladesh, in the marshes of Iraq and over the water of the Jordan River.

The Jordan River situation is probably the most dangerous. Israeli seizure of the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967 denied Syria access to the Sea of Galilee. Even more contentious is the question of who can tap water in the aquifer under the West Bank of the Jordan. The land is occupied by Israel and illegal Israeli settlements are slurping up the water as the Palestinians, in principle in charge of the West Bank, and one day, if negotiations are ever successful, in actual control of it, are denied by the Israelis the right to drill deep wells.

Another water crisis area is Bangladesh, a country that sits basically at sea level with a population of 160 million living in an area with as much dry land as the city of Los Angeles.

The situation is more hopeful in Iraq. Saddam Hussein tried "ecocide" on 400,000 Shiite Muslims by damming the water flowing into their marshes. When the United States invaded in 2003, the remaining inhabitants broke the dams, reflooding the marshes. They are now threatened by plans to dam the Tigris and Euphrates rivers upstream.

I regretted the fact that none of the five principal speakers at Chautauqua moved from the dismal picture they presented of the world's water situation to U.S. policy -- what America can do about the problems.

First, they neglected the weak record of succeeding administrations -- Democratic and Republican -- in creating marine reserves, despite the overwhelming importance of reserves in preserving marine life. Of the 3.1 percent of U.S. waters protected, 95 percent are in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument that stretches northwest from Hawaii's main islands.

The other shameful piece of U.S. policy not addressed by the speakers was the fact that the very week Chautauqua was discussing water, Republicans in the Senate once again prevented U.S. ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty.

Ratification is favored by U.S. commercial interests, represented by the otherwise conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and by all senior national security figures, not to mention the White House and by Democrats in the Senate, where treaties must be approved. The Law of the Sea Treaty has been awaiting U.S. action since 1982; 162 countries and the European Union have signed and ratified it. Some 18 backward nations, including Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and the United States, haven't even signed it.

In the meantime, all sorts of matters involving international waters proceed without the United States, including negotiations over the evolving use of the Arctic as melting ice opens more of it to navigation and exploitation.

Chautauqua's week on water was very useful, but there was no reason to duck the critical U.S. policy issues. They need action badly.


Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor (dsimpson@post-gazette.com, 412 263-1976).


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