Water Flow 2, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from eVo photo’s photostream

First, some facts. Only 2.5% of the water in the world is fresh water (not salt water). 780 million people in the world lack access to an improved water source (approximately one in nine people). Of the world’s fresh water, 20% of it is contained in the Great Lakes and the watershed of the Midwest. Right now, the United States is suffering under one of the worst droughts in decades — taking a terrible toll from Ohio to California and from Texas to the Dakotas. What does this mean for our future? According to Don Carter, Director of Urban Design and Regional Engagement of the Remaking Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, the Sun Belt has now become the Drought Belt and the Rust Belt is now the Water Belt.

In a TEDxPittsburgh Talk, Carter quotes Prof. Dipak Jain, Dean of INSEAD (formerly a dean of the business school at Northwestern University), who told Bloomberg News that, “Water is going to be more important than oil in the next 20 years.” Carter posits that Sun Belt population magnets like Phoenix — which needs to import water — are already on a path to an unsustainable future. Whereas post-industrial cities, such as Milwaukee and Pittsburgh — which have an abundance of water, among other resources — are considered to be “wealth builders” (high growth in capital income). It is these cities which have the brighter future. You can view his entire talk here:

In the Connector blog at the Metropolitan Planning Council, Richard C. Longworth, Senior Fellow, Chicago Council on Global Affairs, notes that it was the proximity to water which helped to build the Great Lakes region’s great industries and it is water which still holds the key to the region’s vitality. Milwaukee, in particular, is making the most of their location on Lake Michigan. From his post:

Milwaukee is already off and running. The city has become a world water hub through its Water Council, through the Water Institute and new School of Freshwater Sciences at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, and through other local players, such as Marquette University.

But Milwaukee itself says that any number can play. There’s enough water to go around, and too many opportunities for one city to seize. Leaders there talk about a Great Lakes water initiative that could leverage other work going on in other lakeside cities and universities.

What role will Pittsburgh play with our three rivers in a future that will hold water ever more dear?

Milwaukee from Eldweiss II (2), a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from MaryLouiseEklund’s photostream

Pittsburgh, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from Tammster1’s photostream