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March 22, 2012


World Water Day

Today the world celebrates its most precious resource: water.

The United Nation’s 2012 World Water Day is focused on the fragile balance between water and food security. Many countries around the world are suffering from water shortages so extreme that they cannot produce enough food to support their basic needs.

Wealthy, water-strapped countries have begun to lease large swaths of arable land in more water-rich regions to ensure their own food security, as Saudi Arabia has done in northern Africa. The global strain on water and food will continue to fuel and inflame conflict in water-stressed regions from Mexico to Afghanistan.

For Chicagoans who have the pleasure of seeing the great expanse of Lake Michigan every day, it can appear that water scarcity and the resulting hunger and conflict are distant problems. However the global challenges facing society today know no borders – be it population growth, climate change or water scarcity.

An increasingly thirsty and hungry world is awakening to the reality that fresh water is our most valuable resource and that we must act now to preserve its quantity and quality forever.

Chicago is a world-class city because of its proximity to the world’s greatest source of surface freshwater. As host to the 2012 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Summit this May, the city has a unique opportunity to rise as a leader in the global water crisis discussion. Heads of State and key diplomats from over 28 countries will descend upon the shores of the Great Lakes to discuss strategies for ensuring world peace and security, in which fresh water access will be key.

The shared 11,000-mile shoreline of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River between Canada and the United States has remained peaceful for nearly two hundred years. To ensure the prosperity of the region for decades and centuries to come, the City Design Practice of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill has lead a pro bono effort to advance a bold 100-year vision for the environmental and economic renewal of our region.

Chicago has an incredible responsibility and role to play in realizing this vision. The city holds the largest of a few permitted exemptions from the Great Lakes –St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact, which restricts water diversions from the basin. Because of the historic Chicago River reversal, Chicago is legally allowed to consume and divert 2.1 billion gallons of water per day from the Great Lakes basin.

The Compact’s creation was driven, in large part, by the failed effort of a few entrepreneurs in the late 1990s. Realizing the value of Lake Superior’s vastness, a small private company received a permit to withdraw up to 158 billion gallons a year for free to ship and sell in Asia. Luckily, before any water was withdrawn for commercial gain, strong opposition from the public and quick policy making by Ontario’s Environment Ministry revoked the permit.

Chicago’s prosperous future is inextricably linked to the health and resiliency of the Great Lakes. It is becoming increasingly important for us to stand up as a leader, not a laggard, in the responsible use of fresh water and to be proactive, not reactive, in protecting our resource.

In support of World Water Day and in advance of NATO, let us, as the great city of Chicago, proclaim to:

  • innovate and demonstrate the latest in water conservation, treatment, and reuse technologies;
  • conserve the fragile ecosystems that support water quality and actively reduce the threat of invasive species;
  • keep climate change mitigation and adaptation at the top of our agenda to lessen the impact on our city and the Great Lakes that sustain it;
  • support the growth of a local, sustainable food system and rely less on food from water-stressed regions;
  • work with our fellow Great Lakes cities, states, and provinces to implement a bold 100-year vision for the region; and
  • demonstrate true stewardship of this invaluable resource.

1 comment

1 Paul Konwinski { 03.22.12 at 10:59 pm }

My thesis was about water treatment, purification, distribution, storage, and leisure. I am currently working in Indianapolis to try and implement sustainable water infrastructure and systems into as many projects as I possibly can, and can only be positively influenced by people with a voice and awareness. I see big possibilities for America, especially in the Great Lakes region, to put its foot forward with design ingenuity and implementation. Water is our most precious resource, and I want to do what I can to preserve it for generations. If I can help in any other type of way that I am not aware of, please enlighten me….