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Beacon blog: World's water problems are our water problems

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 16, 2010 - Benjamin Franklin had plenty of pithy things to say about all sorts of human activities, but one most appropriate to our age is his concern for thrift and conservation. "Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself," he wrote. "Waste nothing."

Along those lines, Franklin also said something perhaps of greater and more specific importance to our time: The enormous value of water is realized at the precise moment when the well dries up.

Alison M. Jones came to town day before yesterday to see an old friend, Lotsie Holton, and also to speak at a meeting of the St. Louis Chapter of the Explorers Club, of which Holton is a former chairman. Jones' life mission has become fresh water and the crisis facing the planet because of shrinking supplies of it or the degradation of it by pollutants of one sort or another.

Living where we do, in a region surrounded by rivers, one might be tempted to describe Jones as the sort of person who might cry "Drought!" just to alarm us unnecessarily. To counter the possibility of such an accusation, Jones has spent decades studying at home and in the field. To narrow her research, she identified six watersheds, including the Mississippi's, that in one way or another are imperiled.

Three of these watersheds are in the United States, and three are in Africa. The other U.S. watersheds in danger are the Raritan River basin in New Jersey and the Columbia River basin in Oregon. In Africa, the three endangered watersheds are the Omo, the Mara and the Nile.

She chose the systems out of loyalty and passion. America is her homeland, and the destruction of its natural resources is a source of considerable alarm to her and other conservationists. As for Africa, a journey with her family there in 1985 was her moment of epiphany about the environment as well as the affecting beauty and nobility of nature.

Although many people go to Africa and return enchanted by the wealth of experiences it offers, few people return as transformed as Jones was. In the 25 years that have passed between her first trip and now, she has returned to school -- to Columbia University in New York -- to correct deficiencies in her knowledge of science, particularly ecology, and she attended classes at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan to sharpen her skills as a photographer.

I couldn't hear her talk at the Explorers Club last night because of a previous commitment, but she and I appeared on Ron Elz's show on KMOX Radio on Tuesday night to talk about the club, to which we both belong, and about water. I had some knowledge of serious water problems, including wars that erupt because of them, thanks to the brilliant reporting commissioned by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, so I wasn't totally uninformed. Jones, however, spoke with the special and affecting sort of knowledge that is made luminous and involving by passion.

In a meeting yesterday at the Beacon's office in Grand Center, Jones was joined by Peter Raven, director emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden and a heroic figure in environmental causes.

There was a meeting of the minds at the table. Raven talked about the massive effort the Garden is making to protect the natural resources of Madagascar, where, among other problems, its ebony and rosewood forests are being savaged to send the wood to eager markets in China. "It is the typical situation of a poor country being ripped off by rich leaders," he said.

Jones shared her intimate knowledge of water projects in Africa such as not-for-profit Mara Conservancy, which manages Masai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya. They discussed problems related not only to drought and pollution but the lasting effects of colonialism and the ticking time bombs of boundary disputes.

There is a finite amount of water on the planet, she said, but as the scarcity increases the population of the world expands. Ben Franklin would be outraged by the vulgarity of our conspicuous consumptions of various sorts, and the promiscuous waste of resources in which we indulge so capriciously. A case in point: In the West, we discuss what sort of bottled water to buy and are affected by the shapes of throwaway containers, while elsewhere 1 billion people have difficulty getting clean water at all.

Jones' website is www.nowaternolife.org -- No Water No Life, a message that might incline you to throw up your hands and give up.

Not a chance, said Jones, on her way out the door to visit the St. Louis Zoo. "It's too late to be a pessimist." What's needed is awareness, she said, brought home in the honest words and engaging pictures she presents us.

"This is not a matter of what we are going to do for our grandchildren," she said. "It's a matter of what we do now."

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.