Editor's note: Jon D. Markman writes a weekly column for CNBC on MSN Money that is republished here on TheStreet.com . He's also a regular contributor to RealMoney , TheStreet.com's subscription site. If you'd like to see all of Jon Markman's RealMoney commentary, click here for information about a free trial.


Ten years ago, a massive earthquake rolled under the Japanese city of Kobe at dawn, toppling 140,000 buildings, causing 300 major fires, killing more than 5,000 people and leaving 300,000 homeless.

To help cover the story for the Los Angeles Times, I left my wife to care for our 10-day-old daughter and flew into the city with a small team of Los Angeles-based trauma doctors and nurses. We found a surreal, smoking ruin of a city with roads twisted like coils of rope, high-rises tilted at Dr. Seuss angles and thousands of middle-class families jammed into dingy, ice-cold rooms in the few public buildings left standing.

Just as in the tsunami zone of south Asia this month, the immediate health danger, besides a possible outbreak of disease, was a lack of fresh water. More than 75% of the city's water supply was destroyed when underground pipes fractured. As much as they desired pallets of drugs, food, blankets and tents sent from throughout Japan and abroad, the Kobe survivors coveted -- and needed -- clean, bottled water for cooking, drinking and bathing.

Both incidents are a stark reminder that water is our most precious resource. Because it is seemingly ubiquitous in the U.S., it is taken for granted. Massive snowstorms in California this month have loaded up the snowpack that provides water there, and rains in the Southeast are filling reservoirs in that part of the country.

The rest of the world, however, is not so fortunate.

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