Water — what does it mean to you? Can you place a monetary value on its importance to your daily life? Or does it hold a more intangible worth?
In the continuing aftermath of the Gulf oil spill, many of us have had cause to consider water's importance to the health of our planet. The oceans are perhaps more fragile than we thought, as our impact
on them has been made graphically clear in recent years.
And yet, the salt water of our oceans is not the only water source that is facing critical man-made threats. "Water Matters!" was one of this year's themes for the UN's World Environment Day
(WED), the annual celebration bringing global attention to environmental issues while encouraging community action.
Pittsburgh, chosen as North America's WED host city on the heels of the G-20 Summit in September, represents a remarkable success story for environmental transformation and river restoration. Surrounded by an abundance of fresh water, Pittsburgh is situated at the head of the great Ohio River system and thus has a large impact on this important watershed. Once known as "the smoky city," as a result of decades of heavy industry pollution, Pittsburgh has now embraced the understanding that we are all downstream (and upstream) from someone.
One of the culminating events of the WED celebrations was the "Water Matters!" Global Water Conference, held on June 3 in Pittsburgh's groundbreaking LEED-certified convention center — the largest LEED-certified building in the world. Keynote speeches and panel discussions from some of the world's leading water experts highlighted water's importance to our health, as an energy resource, and as an economic impetus. Thought-provoking presentations included the dangers of low-level exposure to chemical concentrations in our drinking water and the effects of a national undervaluing of water services infrastructure.
However, the most impassioned presentations came from two keynote speakers: Carl Safina
— PhD, author and ocean activist, and John Cronin
, Hudson River environmentalist and technology and policy innovation advocate. Stressing the moral obligation of scientists to educate the public on global threats to our health and ecosystems, Safina joined Cronin in issuing an urgent call to action from all — individuals, communities, industry and government. As they see it, energy and water conservation are moral issues that we all have an obligation to address, as we are all participants in a corrupt and unsustainable system.
This year the city has also embarked on a unique campaign to highlight the importance of its rivers: setting a World Record for the longest canoe and kayak flotilla.
On Saturday, June 5, World Environment Day, over 1,700 boaters took to their canoes and kayaks to be part of this record breaking event, and in so doing, showed their commitment to preserving the area's fresh water resources.
The Paddle at the Point record-setting event was just one large activity set to celebrate World Environment Day, symbolic of many smaller communal and individual activities heeding Safina and Cronin's call to raise awareness of water and energy conservation issues. World records need not be broken to make a significant difference; just as the longest canoe and kayak flotilla in the world is made up of many individuals coming together to create something larger, we each have the power to change small things
in our daily lives that will ultimately make a meaningful difference. As Carl Safina stated at the Global Water Conference, "Don't try to be perfect. Do try to do better."