By Jill Jedlicka

More than 1 billion people in the world do not have access to safe drinking water, yet we are privileged to have 20 percent of the world’s accessible fresh water at our front door.

Clean water is an essential human need and one whose value will increase as global climates change. The Great Lakes provide drinking water to 34 million people in the United States and Canada, and the lakes support more than 1.5 million U.S. jobs that generate $62 billion in wages.

World Water Day, observed Friday, was established to raise awareness about international water cooperation. With more than 85 percent of the world living in conditions of water shortages, World Water Day offers an opportunity to recognize that Buffalo Niagara is home to the Great Lakes, the greatest fresh water supply in the world.

Much of the world still views our community as part of America’s Rust Belt, when in reality our region is in the middle of a major transformation – one that is integrating and embracing our Great Lakes and waterfront into local economic revitalization.

As the region’s leading clean water advocate, Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper recently launched a major initiative, Rust to Blue. This focuses on the physical restoration, protection and enhancement of our water systems as a driver for economic revitalization.

This “blue economy” is in action all around Buffalo Niagara, and is responsible for “the other billion” in economic activity. This includes a massive Buffalo River cleanup and revitalization effort that set the foundation for Canalside, green infrastructure investments for sewage pollution, new Niagara River Greenway waterfront parks and public access to new fish and wildlife habitat restoration sites throughout the regional watershed.

We want to build on our success and make sure that green infrastructure and cutting-edge greenway plans are designed into the restoration and revitalization of new waterfront initiatives, notably Buffalo’s outer harbor, and Niagara Falls’ Robert Moses Parkway.

Regional success, recognized nationally, is driven from within the community and represents the region’s demand and desire to sustain a healthy and vibrant waterfront. The upcoming investments and decisions we make regarding the renaissance of these two iconic waterfront assets will impact our ability to connect people to our local waterways.

Water defined our region’s history and it will define our future. We have come a long way in restoring and protecting our waterways since the Buffalo River caught fire in January 1969. We stand at a pivotal time where our collective work can transform our regional economy, improve our health and wellbeing as a society and enhance our ability to enjoy and protect our greatest natural asset, fresh water.

Jill Jedlicka is the executive director at Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper.