“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 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.