Water: when even New York has to turn off some taps

In New England, despite a hard mantle of snow blanketing much of the region, there is talk of severe water shortages in the years ahead. In southern California, annual rainfall is off by 80 percent. In the Midwest farmers are concerned there will be a repetition this summer of the severe drought of 1980. In New York, Mayor Koch is expected to impose mandatory restrictions on water use this week.

These developments serve as reminders of how precious natural resources are in a world too frequently indifferent to wise use of them. Water shortages in themselves are hardly new in the sweep of human history. Down through the centuries men have sought to overcome scarcities, and in countless parts of planet Earth, from the Negev desert of Israel to the flatlands of central Washington State, extensive irrigation or water-development projects have turned barren regions into lush green.

However, it is the other side of the coin -- the indiscriminate waste and misuse of valuable water resources in an age of increasing industrial and technological pressures on existing reserves -- that today concerns many experts. What is urgently needed, they say, is nothing less than a new worldwide ethic regarding water use -- an emerging awareness that water is a shared treasure of all mankind which must be properly valued, rightly used, and, yes, stored and replenished so as to meet the largest possible common good.

In this context, the United Nation's designation of the 1980s as the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade is an important step. UN technicians, working with local governments, are seeking to ensure safe drinking water for the 2 billion inhabitants of this planet who must currently rely on polluted, rancid, or barely existent water sources for their nourishment.

But much more must be done to foster a new water ethic, starting with the industrial nations of Western Europe, North America, and Japan, which, because of their highly developed industrial and agricultural sectors, are insatiable water users. Their governments, at both the national and local levels, must develop master plans for water use, while intensifying conservation efforts. Their schools should step up instruction regarding water usage, and industry should seek better ways to conserve existing resources.

In industrial nations such as the US some hard choices will have to be made in the years ahead as the private sector and/or government scramble to develop coal resources, consider extensive national grids of slurry pipelines, introduce large-scale military projects such as the MX system, step up livestock grazing, and promote mass-scale agribusiness farming. The point is that all of these moves, while not necessarily incompatible, use water on a grand scale. Political leaders would ill serve their constituents if they were to pretend otherwise or deny citizens the debate necessary for a judicious ordering of priorities.

At the same time better ways will have to be found of purifying water sources. Equally important, the often antiquated pipeline distribution systems must be rebuilt. That in itself could require vast outlays of public and private funds, estimated as high as $50 billion to $100 billion. Also, it is necessary to devise more dual water systems, particularly in the West and Southwest, where agricultural and drinking waters flow through diverse transportation systems and can be recycled.

The most pressing need, however, remains that of inculcating a greater public awareness of the importance of water conservation. It ought to become second nature even in the relatively comfortable industrial societies where ever-flowing faucets are taken for granted.

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