Three books on water, its importance and its future

July 8, 2011

Water is the ultimate renewable resource — which is why we are running out. Because it falls from the sky, constantly replenished and cleansed in a cycle of evaporation and precipitation, we regard it as free, a gift from God. It is never truly owned or consumed, only borrowed from nature. And so we squander it and defile it. Until, as we are increasingly finding, it is not there when we want it.

These three books, in their different ways, each chart this conundrum. “The Ripple Effect” is a lively environmental tract about dirty water, drought and water politics in the United States. “The Big Thirst” is a journalistic journey taking in the secret life of water from the wet moons of Saturn to the soup vats at Campbell’s. “Elixir” is a cultural history of water by an anthropologist.

“The Ripple Effect” is true to its title, following the myriad reverberations from our use and abuse of this most abundant, ubiquitous resource. The book plunges in and rarely comes up for air. In his first dozen pages alone, Alex Prud’homme narrates a brutal drowning at a waterworks that left the people of New Jersey drinking diluted cadaver juice, scares us about antibacterial soap, submerges us in the chemical waste disaster of Love Canal and douses us with warnings about upcoming water wars.

Water, Prud’homme points out, is energy. And, just as surely, energy is water. In Saudi Arabia, they use oil from beneath the desert to power the country’s prime source of freshwater, the energy-guzzling desalination of seawater. But in Brazil, they generate three-quarters of their electricity from turbines set into dam walls on the country’s mighty rivers.

And the link is not about to be broken. Shale gas, the new wonder-fuel, is extracted from the ground by fracking — short for hydraulic fracturing, a process of forcing water into cracks in rocks to release trapped methane. And how will we create the fuel for future hydrogen-powered vehicles? By splitting water molecules, and using lots of electricity to do it.


‘The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Fresh Water in the Twenty-First Century’ by Alex Prud'homme (Scribner. 435 pp. $27)

The books share some core observations: Humans are 70 percent water. The planet has always had the same amount of water — 332.5 million cubic miles, according to Prud’homme. Benjamin Franklin noted that “when the wells run dry, we know the worth of water.”

The authors all emphasize that water, unlike other key resources, is overwhelmingly local. It is heavy. Moving it any way other than by gravity is prodigiously expensive. So it mostly stays within river basins. Which is why, as Charles Fishman puts it in “The Big Thirst,” “if all Americans were to swear off bottled water, not one person in the world who desperately needed water would get it.” And why dreams of watering the American West by tapping the Yukon River or the Great Lakes will come to naught.

But it is also why damming a major river can be an act of war against your downstream neighbors. Watch out for Ethiopia vs. Egypt on the Nile, Turkey vs. Iraq on the Tigris and India vs. Pakistan on the Indus.

Water is elusive and defies all efforts to pin it down. As Fishman notes, we have taken it so much for granted that “we don’t have a good language for talking about water, we don’t have a politics of water, or an economics of water.” We can’t work out whether to treat it as a commodity, as a human right or simply as a force of nature, like the air we breathe.

It takes more than 100 times your body weight in water every day to keep you fed and clothed and hydrated. But, paradoxically, we rarely consume water in the sense that we consume other materials. And hence we never truly waste it, either. Whatever leaks or percolates or evaporates will always turn up somewhere else.

The question is where. For we are now capturing water on such a scale that many major rivers are running on empty much of the year. Think the Colorado River or the Rio Grande, the Yellow River in China or the Nile in Egypt. And many of nature’s great underground stores of water, held sometimes for thousands of years in the pores of rocks, are being pumped dry. Midwestern farmers empty the Ogallala Aquifer; Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi pumps ancient water from beneath the Sahara.

Water lends itself to good reportage, as these books show. While Prud’homme limits his canvas to the United States, Fishman goes on a world tour. His memorable excursions include India, “where water is worshipped but gets no respect,”and Australia, where he visits Toowoomba, the drought-hit town that voted to close rather than drink its own sewage.

But in making sense of water and its place in the development of civilization, Brian Fagan’s “Elixir” is the most eye-opening of these books. From the irrigation canals of Mesopotamia to the baths of Roman Britain; from the cisterns of ancient Pakistan to the levees that protect millions of Chinese from “China’s sorrow,” the Yellow River; from the water wheels of the Middle East to the breathtaking subterranean channels of Persia, he relates a fine history that shines a light on today.

Fagan is an author of books about past natural climate changes, such as the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age. He understands how the ancients struggled with changing climate and that what matters has always been the fluctuating availability of water, rather than shifting temperatures. That is an important lesson for us now.

He joins the other authors in itemizing the “dazzling promiscuity” with which we routinely use water today. How, for instance, Phoenix fills its swimming pools and irrigates its golf courses with water delivered at huge expense down a canal across the Sonoran Desert. But Fagan’s story is enriched by the knowledge of how much better the Hohokam managed desert living on the same ground for more than 1,000 years. And of how we acknowledge their great irrigation works by paving over them.

Water permeates our culture and language. It is the most universal symbol in the world’s religions, from the sacred rivers of Hindus to the baptismal waters of Christianity to the purification rituals of Islam.

The bad news is that we manage the planet’s most abundant and renewable resource so poorly that we sometimes run out of water when and where we need it. The flip side of our profligacy is that we have so much room for managing it better. And the best news of all is that every day, around 240 cubic miles of the stuff, purged of pollutants, falls to the Earth. That’s more than 37,000 gallons for each of us.

Fred Pearce is the author of “When the Rivers Run Dry” and the environment consultant for New Scientist magazine.

THE RIPPLE EFFECT
The
Fate of Freshwater in the Twenty-First Century

By Alex Prud’homme

Scribner. 435 pp. $27

THE BIG THIRST The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water

By Charles Fishman
Free Press. 388 pp. $26.99

ELIXIR

A History of Water and Humankind

By Brian Fagan

Bloomsbury. 384 pp. $28

Fred Pearce wades into three books on the power, fragility and future of our planet’s water supply

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