LEARNING FROM THE PAST

Paul G. Rogers, J.D., Chair

Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Research, and Medicine


The nation has made tremendous progress in the past 35 years in addressing its watersheds. Individuals, such as Rachel Carson, and meetings, such as the one in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, spurred individuals and organizations worldwide into action. Many people will remember when the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969. As Time Magazine reported the incident, “Some river. Chocolate Brown. Oily. Bubbling with subsurface gases. It oozes rather than flows. Anyone who falls into the river does not drown, he decays.” At the same time, the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration dryly noticed, “The lower Cuyahoga has no visible sign of life, not even low forms such as leeches, or sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes. It is also literally a fire hazard.”

The Cuyahoga River fire and other environmental decays of the water systems in the United States led to some of the landmark congressional legislation of the 1970s, such as the Clean Water Act, which helped to clean up the watersheds, and the Safe Drinking Water Act, which ensures that the drinking water is of high quality. These acts ensured that people in the United States will have water for recreation, drinking, and other activities.

The world that we live in is changing. In 1999, the world population surpassed 6 billion people. By the end of the last century, there was a shift in the demographics as more people were living in urban areas than rural areas, which stressed the world’s natural resources. Climate change is no longer an academic debate, but a growing public concern as the impacts of climate change on health are categorized. These effects may include water scarcity, heat waves, and other extreme weather events.

The need for water is vital not only to the United States, but also to all regions of the world. Many regions worldwide are water stressed, particularly those located near large megacities (Figure 1-1) but especially in Brazil, China, India, Mexico, Nigeria, the Philippines, Turkey, and the United States. The Southwest region of the United States, including fast-growing desert cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles, is already experiencing high levels of water stress. However, other regions, such as the South, with its extensive web of rivers, are not immune. For example, metropolitan Atlanta’s rapid transformation to a sprawling city of 4 million people and other rapidly growing areas are starting to tax the region’s water availability.

Current United Nations estimates suggest that there are about 300 potential conflicts over water around the world, arising from disagreements over river borders and the drawing of water from shared lakes and aquifers (Oatridge, 1998). Avoiding these conflicts means using limited resources smarter and looking at new ways to manage and protect water. This is a daunting task, and the solutions will not come from a single sector of the water community but will require differ-



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