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Tomorrow's Critical Resource: Water

A TELESCOPE to the future would show that water will soon be recognized, along with oil, as one of the most important foreign policy resource issues of the 1990s. With global population accelerating toward 12 to 14 billion in the 21st century, maintaining dwindling water supplies and averting contamination must be viewed as strategic priorities. The problem is not an overall shortage of water, as water consumption for all uses is actually less than a quarter of the fresh water available. The challenge, according to the World Bank, is water availability at an acceptable cost in places where it is most needed, as well as vastly improved management of existing resources. Between 1985 and the year 2000, urban areas around the world will absorb an additional 850 million people, pitting the capacity of existing water and sanitation services against an insatiable demand.

In Africa alone, 250 million people, almost 40 percent of the continent's population, are expected to suffer or die from water-related problems within the coming decade. Yet Africa is characterized by water and land resources which, if used to their potential capacities, could support more than several times the present population.

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Eastern Europe was endowed by nature with ample water resources. Yet Poland's river water is so contaminated that 95 percent is unfit to drink, while almost all of Romania's river waters and 50 percent of those in Czechoslovakia are dangerously polluted. Moreover, the ecological catastrophe of the Aral Sea region in Soviet Central Asia was reportedly worse than Chernobyl.

Soviet newspapers acknowledge that two-thirds of the people in the area suffer from diseases related to water pollution. Inhabitants call the Aral Sea the ``salty sea of death.'' Infant mortality in the area is skyrocketing, and birth deformities are common.

American analysts warn that California's finest estuary could also be on the verge of collapse. And California is certainly not the only state in the union threatened by severe water shortages or water pollution.

Together with the World Bank, United Nations organizations have made a resolute effort to slow the ticking clock of damaged water resources. But neither the World Bank nor any of the major UN bodies has the effective political mandate to negotiate water controversies between nations or to dictate appropriate water management within a country. Instead, the most concerned international players find themselves walking a political tightrope above the seas and rivers.

The US government, through its many departments and agencies, has undertaken extensive technical assistance programs throughout the world to improve water supplies. Despite well-intentioned efforts, however, federal departments rarely undertake comprehensive, anticipatory planning on water challenges abroad. American experts are in the vanguard in developing conflict resolution techniques on water sharing. Yet no single agency has definitive responsibility, let alone an adequate, congressionally authorized budget to carve a foreign policy niche for water.

The foreign policy tools for preserving global waters and preventing conflict must merge the fine art of diplomacy with technology, management, training, and financing - in sum, a holistic approach to integrated resource management and sustainability.

The goal of the Global Water Summit Initiative is to galvanize international cooperation at the highest political levels by reaching the decisionmakers responsible for the water future of their countries. Last June, the summit was inaugurated with a meeting in Cairo. In October a second meeting, centered on water resources in the Middle East, will take place in Turkey.

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The men and women engaged in these summits are poets of the future, guiding us to respect and preserve our world's precious water resources.

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