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June 2, 2015

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Expert: We can’t keep taking clean water for granted

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Christopher DeVargas

Professor Kellogg Schwab, Director of the Center for Water and Health at Johns Hopkins University, arrives in Las Vegas on World Water Day, Friday March 22, 2013.

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Turn on the faucet and out comes clean, potable water.

It’s a simple luxury brought on by advances in technology during the 20th century that led to treatment of water supplies with chlorine and other chemicals, inhibiting such diseases as typhus or cholera.

“(The) process that’s still in place in the United States has allowed us to have ignorant bliss when we’re brushing our teeth,” water expert Kellogg Schwab said. “We’re reasonably assured we’re not going to die in two days, because we have an advanced water treatment system that supplies millions and millions of gallons of water every day to our homes.”

But the ease of access to clean, affordable water in the U.S. has led to a misconception among many people that water is a perpetual resource instead of a limited one that could run out, said Schwab, director of the Global Water Program and a professor at Johns Hopkins University.

“In the 21st century, things get more complex. There’s more people, more buildings but less interest now in water and sanitation. … We’ve disconnected. You can flush your toilet every day and not think about it,” Schwab said. “We’ve got to realize that water is of value. It’s going to take some resources for our entire society to maintain what we’ve developed.”

The Global Water Program works in more than 100 countries to promote safe, sustainable water resources.

The challenges of developing water resources in the U.S. differ from those in such nations as Ghana or Nicaragua, but Schwab said the solution is the same.

“What we’ve realized in the last decade is that we cannot solve this problem with technology. What we need is to (change) human behavior and to understand how those processes work for individuals,” he said.

Schwab visited Las Vegas for World Water Day and Cirque du Soleil’s "One Night for One Drop" event Friday, which he praised for its approach toward raising awareness about water issues.

“Cirque du Soleil and One Drop have some innovative ways that they try and disseminate knowledge,” he said. “I can write a scientific report and it would go in a file and be done.”

Music, dance and other art forms help people become more engaged and aware of the importance and scarcity of water, Schwab said. That engagement, he said, could lead to changes in the way people think about and use water.

Las Vegas, with its reliance on the shrinking reservoir at Lake Mead, is at the epicenter of the water challenges the country will face in the coming decades, Schwab said.

“It’s not if, it’s when,” Schwab said. “If you don’t have enough water, that’s going to limit supply for economic growth, for people and for industry. Things will get worse. We cannot ignore this.”

Conservation and finding ways to reuse treated wastewater will both help address the looming water shortage, Schwab said.

Another challenge will be maintaining the pipes and treatment plants that deliver water. As consumers conserve more, revenues to the water authority will shrink and funding to maintain the infrastructure will dwindle.

Schwab said poorly maintained infrastructure leads to leaks and can ultimately result in disruptions in service. But investing the billions needed to fund improvements means people have to understand that their water bills help pay for an entire system of unseen pipes, valves, tanks and other equipment, not just the water coming out of the tap.

Sharing existing water resources and protecting them for future generations will require a global effort among governments, businesses and communities, Schwab said.

“We all are in this together in this entire planet,” he said. “We have to figure out strategic ways to use water wisely.”

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