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Journalist and Author Charles Fishman Shares Concerns About Future of Water with Economics Club

Charles FishmanJournalist Charles Fishman speaks to the Economics Club of Hampton Roads.

Investigative journalist and author Charles Fishman told a luncheon audience of the Economics Club of Hampton Roads "free is the wrong price for water."

Fishman, author of "The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water," has traveled around the world to investigate and write about the challenges of water scarcity and cleanliness - from a decade-long drought in Australia, to a river "as black as this pedestal" running through the middle of Delhi, the capital of India.

Fishman told the audience Sept. 18 at the first Economics Club event of 2013-14 that the issue of water is among the most important the world faces in the coming century, and that the solutions to the potential crisis of fresh water are right in front of us.

He began his talk by relating a story he was told by a pilot assigned to the USS Kitty Hawk, the last diesel-powered aircraft carrier in the U.S. fleet. With water a precious commodity on a ship with a crew of more than 5,000, the pilot told Fishman that his unit keeps its planes washed by flying out into rainstorms with flaps down and landing gear out, on the commanding officer's orders.

"We are all living on that aircraft carrier," Fishman said. "Only we're frequently not as smart as the captain on the Kitty Hawk."

A long-time journalist, Fishman told the crowd of about 200 that he was inspired to look into the issue of water by a single bottle of Fiji left in his hotel room once. Investigating the source of the water in the bottle, Fishman discovered it was, indeed, shipped all the way from the South Pacific island nation of Fiji, where 53 percent of the population has no safe, clean drinking water.

"There is no human being in the United States who ever needs a bottle of water from Fiji," Fishman said.

He related other alarming statistics about water - that more occupants of the globe have access to cellphone service than have access to clean water; that India spends 2 percent of its GDP treating illnesses caused by poor drinking water; that every round of golf played on a golf course in the city of Las Vegas uses the equivalent of 2,507 gallons of water to keep the course pristine.

Fishman also said that Americans consume 1.25 billion bottles of water every week, and spend $22 billion on bottled water a year. Interestingly, he noted that those figures represent a sign of hope for the future of water reform. He said the commodification of water needs to occur on a scale that goes beyond bottled water sold in stores, which is why, he said, that water needs to be given a greater value than free.

"The U.S. uses more water in a day than oil in a year, more water in four days than the world uses oil in a year," Fishman said.

But until residents of developed countries like the United States are willing to accept that drinking water needs to be valued, and not lumped in with the water that we use on golf courses or in toilets, the looming crisis will only accelerate, Fishman said.

Curiously, companies are out ahead of policymakers when it comes to recognizing the value of water, Fishman noted. He mentioned a wool washing company in Australia that partners with its local government to collect storm sewer runoff in a reservoir, and use it to meet its needs. Another example cited was a luxury cruise ship line that saves thousands on every voyage by using chilled river rocks instead of ice cubes on its all-day buffet.

Fishman said until the "tap to toilet" paradox is worked out for water, society will have a hard time accepting change to its water consumption habits. To spur that change, he argued that society needs to understand this about water: "It's all Tyrannosaurus rex pee" - meaning that the water we drink has been in the ecosystem for millions of years.

The Economics Club of Hampton Roads is an organization for business and government executives and community leaders who share an interest in the practical implications of economic principles, trends and events. It was established in 1991 as a community service by former ODU President James V. Koch, and is administered by Gil Yochum, dean of the College of Business and Public Administration, under the supervision of an elected board.