The Daily Tar Heel

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Monday August 15th

Duke University professor stresses water as a right

As the University approaches the halfway point of its two-year water theme, a Duke University professor stressed the importance of water as a right — not a luxury.

Members of the UNC community convened in the FedEx Global Education Center Thursday night to listen to Duke University professor James Salzman speak about his latest book, “Drinking Water: A History.”

Salzman, who spoke for free as part of the Global Research Institute’s “Water in Our World” series, has extensively researched the importance of water to humanity throughout history.

He said a law class he taught six years ago influenced his decision to write the book.

“I was raving, as I sometimes do, about how amazing the Clean Water Act is. Because of the Clean Water Act more people get access to safe drinking water from the tap than ever before in human history,” he said.

“As I said this, I looked around the room, I noticed that over half of the students had bottled water sitting in front of them,” he said. “And I thought, ‘Well this is weird, now that drinking water out of the tap is so safe, what is it that they’re actually buying?’”

In his book, Salzman traces the importance of water in history back to thousands of years ago, when traditional Jewish water law declared water a right. He points out that Rome, the first great water empire, was the first civilization to pay for water.

Salzman said today, the central conflict with water is that it is an overlooked human right but also a valued economic commodity.

“I have a challenge for you the next time you go to the mall or to an airport: Try to find a drinking fountain near a food court,” Salzman said.

“You won’t because drinking water is thought of as an economic commodity and has been taken for granted.”

Senior Hannah Kiefer said she wants to read Salzman’s book after hearing him speak.

“I’ve had a class on water issues last semester, and it really opened my eyes to the complications of drinking water, even in America, as well as developing countries,” she said.

Water has been an important topic of conversation at UNC since last March, when the Faculty Council voted to implement the two-year water theme.

Drinking water is a complex resource that is no doubt becoming scarce, Salzman said. He added that people should consider access to free water, its safety and its abundance when contemplating its future.

Senior Faima Ramirez said water is a precious commodity in the Canary Islands, where she is from.

“It is so available here, in America. It’s easy to open the tap and drink water. That is something that I cannot do at home,” she said.

“Water has become a symbol of privilege, purchasing power, class — and that’s going to change in the next couple of decades when it runs out because we are using it in the wrong ways and not for the best priorities.”

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