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Fresh Water: Toward a Sustainable Future

February 2002

Citation: ELR 10167

Author: Robert W. Adler


It is difficult to imagine a resource more essential to a sustainable economy and to a sustainable, healthy human community than fresh water. Humans cannot live for more than several days without water, shorter than for any source of sustenance other than fresh air. Water is essential to grow, raise, or support in the natural environment every source of food used by human populations, from wild fish and game to livestock and to all forms of plant food, whether cultivated or collected. Without adequate supplies of water we could not rely on trees and other plants for building materials, natural fabrics, paper, and other goods. Natural water cycles play a role in maintaining the relatively stable weather patterns relied on for a sustainable economy and lifestyle, and protect communities from flooding, drought, and other impacts of more volatile climates. Fresh water is also essential to natural communities, the ecological foundation on which sustainable human economies are built. As international water expert Peter Gleick writes, "water runs like a river through our lives, touching everything from our health and the health of ecosystems around us to farmers' fields and the production of goods we consume."1

Unfortunately, human societies worldwide have not always appreciated the need to protect and maintain adequate sources of fresh water. Throughout history, human populations have abused aquatic ecosystems and water sources, either through ignorance, neglect, or greed. From oversalination of agricultural soils in the fertile crescent2 to desertification of what is now the Sahara Desert to contamination of city water supplies and accompanying epidemics of typhoid, cholera, and other diseases, neglect of fresh water has reduced or, in some cases, eliminated entirely the sustainability of human civilizations.

[Editors Note: In June 1992, at the United National Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, the nations of the world formally endorsed the concept of sustainable development and agreed to a plan of action for achieving it. One of those nations was the United States. In September 2002, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, these nations will gather in Johannesburg to review progress in the 10-year period since UNCED and to identify steps that need to be taken next. In anticipation of the Rio + 10 summit conference, Prof. John C. Dernbach is editing a book that assesses progress that the United States has made on sustainable development in the past 10 years and recommends next steps. The book, which is scheduled to be published by the Environmental Law Institute in June 2002, is comprised of chapters on various subjects by experts from around the country. This Article will appear as a chapter in the book. Further information on the book will be available at www.eli.org or by calling 1-800-433-5120 or 202-939-3844.]

Robert W. Adler is a Professor of Law of the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources, and the Environment at the University of Utah College of Law. He is indebted to Barbara McFarlane and to the staff at the University of Utah Law Library for invaluable research assistance; and to co-authors on previous projects, including Jessica Landman, Diane Cameron, Sarah Van de Wetering, and Michele Straube, whose work was drawn upon in this chapter. Work on this chapter was funded in part by the University of Utah College of Law Research Fund.

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