Books about environmental and economic issues are always kind of depressing, because it's really easy to show examples of how very badly we are hoisting ourselves on our own petard on an epic scale. Like most authors of such books, Charles Fishman shows us how very, very bad it's getting and then tries to end on an optimistic note: "Hey, we have the technology and the science, and if we just behave like rational adults who know we're all in this together, we can solve this problem!"
Uh huh, how often does that happen?
Some interesting points to ponder:
1. The Earth will never "run out" of water. The Earth has exactly the same amount of water today that it did a billion years ago and will have in a billion years. It doesn't go away, it doesn't get destroyed, it just gets recycled.
2. Every drop of water you drink was once dinosaur pee. Probably millions of times over.
3. It's been shown repeatedly that people given access to relatively unlimited, cheap water use less water than people whose water supply is sporadic and uncertain, because people who can't count on their water supply tend to horde water, which leads to more wastage.
4. There are potentially oceans-full of "deep water" locked in the Earth's crust, miles down. Unfortunately, no technology currently known to us would make it possible to access it.
There are a lot of other interesting not-so-random facts in this book. But "The Big Thirst" is about water, and water management, and the economics of water. Basically, we have too many people and not enough water. Except that's not precisely true- we have enough water. We just don't distribute it or manage it wisely. Fishman talks about the extraordinary growth of water technology in the 20th century - how something we now take for granted (in the U.S.), that when you turn on the tap, safe, unlimited, practically free drinking water will come out, is a tectonic shift in culture. People used to have to spend hours every day just to haul enough water to live on. About half the world still does (and this burden mostly falls on women, with many long-term secondary consequences).
Fishman examines three main "case studies" - Las Vegas, Australia, and India. Las Vegas, of course, is a city built in the middle of a desert where people come and pay hundreds of dollars a night to sleep in hotel rooms overlooking enormous water fountains. Vegas's water supply from Lake Mead has been getting sparser and sparser. In response, they have made a number of very intelligent water choices and imposed restrictions that would seem insane in much of the U.S., yet Vegas residents have shown it's perfectly possible to live comfortably under a water-conservation regime. And yet, they still irrigate luxury golf courses in a desert. And yet, they still use (and waste) less water than farmers.
Australia is also suffering from years and years of drought, which does not look to be ending any time soon unless you believe the global warming denialists. One of Australia's major crops is rice. Yes, Australians raise rice - a very water-intensive crop - in the desert. Seems like madness, but it made perfect sense when rain was plentiful and rivers were flowing. Now there are rivers that have literally dried up, and if you do believe in climate change, then they are probably not coming back in our lifetimes. There is a certain futility in the attitude of the rice farmers whose "solution" is basically to hope the rains come again.
There's also an interesting story about a town that could have solved its water shortage problems easily by using waste-water - very clean and efficient sewage treatment plants - except the residents went nuts at the idea of drinking "sewer water" (even though, see above, every drop of water you drink has been urine many, many times for millions of years). More and more cities are in fact now using waste-water and desalinization to provide much of their water. (Desalinization, unfortunately, is not a magical process that turns seawater into drinking water with merely an investment in a plant. It has a massive energy cost - in other words, it's likely to increase global warming — and all that salt you extract has to go somewhere.)
Then there is India. Where even rich people tend to have erratic public water and supply themselves through inefficient, wasteful, technically illegal jury-rigged supply lines filled by private water trucks. Where millions of girls basically can't go to school because they are too busy fetching water for their families. (And because they have no toilets at school that any human being would want to use.) India also has massive water problems, but ironically, they are worse now than they were in the 70s, because what was once a fairly workable public water system has been allowed to fall apart.
So, all these problems, which are in fact solvable, but they are solvable through a combination of technological, economic, and social means which will require people act like responsible adults on a global scale. Although Fishman makes the point several times that even if the residents of California suddenly implemented heroic water-saving measures, it wouldn't do a thing for the water needs of people in India or Australia.
We are really foolish about water, and water is going to become a more pressing problem than oil in the next fifty years in some parts of the world.
An interesting if somewhat gloomy book (unless you're a really optimistic futurist). I thought Fishman belabored some points a bit, and was a little too trusting in the magic of "the market" to solve our water problems if applied correctly, but the basic point that people don't value something they get for nothing has been born out.
I haven't read Mark Kurlansky's Cod, but this book is clearly capitalizing on the popularity of that book. Paul Greenberg even interviews Kurlansky and has the rather more famous writer sample a variety of wild, farmed, and organic cod to see if he can taste the difference. I guess I can't blame Greenberg for playing "gotcha" with a more famous author who made his reputation on a book about one fish species, but it seemed like he was trying a little too hard.
This book is another of what the author calls "endangered fish" books. He focuses on four of the most common food fish: salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna. Talking about the biology and our history of consumption of each, Four Fish is interesting for anyone who is into food science, ecology, or marine biology, but the story is pretty depressing for every species: we're eating them all to extinction. Pretty soon many species of once-abundant fish will be available only as farmed fish, or not even that, and the international community has had very bad luck getting fishermen to stop over-fishing even when it's obvious to everyone what the inevitable outcome will be.
Greenberg tries to end the book on an optimistic note, pointing out that it's not too late, there are conservation, economic, and public policy measures that have been proven to work, and listing the necessary steps that, if taken, could result in all of our favorite fish rebounding and even remaining available as seafood for generations to come. But I cannot say I am as optimistic. The sad story of bluefin tuna seems to be the likely fate of one species after another as we greedily eat anything we can catch.
Not an extremely deep book, but good for a high-level view of our use and overuse of the ocean's resources, and definitely something that will appeal to anyone who ever had an interest in marine biology.
This is another one of those depressing books that catalogs in grim detail just how badly humans are destroying the environment, on a cataclysmic scale, how greed, desperation, and short-sightedness have destroyed entire ecosystems, devastated nations, and displaced millions, and how even though we have the scientific and technological know-how to do better, we're not going to, because short-term thinking always wins.
Oh, the author ends with an optimistic chapter, as all these books do, detailing bold and forward-thinking news plans from economists and water engineers and politicians and scientists around the world — all the ways in which we could save the water tables, grow crops more efficiently with more "crop per drop," irrigate more cheaply, supply urban populations more sustainably, etc.
But that's after chapter after chapter detailing such disasters as the Aral Sea, which the Soviets basically destroyed and which the current government is continuing to destroy, and the Salton Sea in California, created by a mistake and now allowed to become a festering, drying blister in the Sonora desert, and the Dead Sea, which is receding visibly every year. Worse, though, are the water tables. These are the underground reservoirs of water which, unlike rivers, are non-renewable. Much like oil, once you tap them dry, they're gone (and they also destabilize the surrounding earth, leading to erosion and possibly even earthquakes), and farmers and cities around the world, from the American west to India, are tapping them at an alarming rate. Everyone knows that wells used to hit water at 200 feet and now have to go 1500 feet or more, but this doesn't stop everyone from trying to get the last drop.
It is the Tragedy of the Commons on a regional scale. As many of the farmers Fred Pierce interviews point out: "If everyone stopped using the water, that would be great, but if only we do, it won't make a difference, except that our family will starve."
When the Rivers Run Dry is a bit of travel journalism that covers nearly every continent. India and China and their respective mistreatment of the Ganges, the Indus, the Yellow and the Yangtze rivers are all covered, as is the madness that is Los Angeles and Las Vegas, currently draining the Colorado River dry and casting thirsty eyes thousands of miles north to the Great Lakes.
While America's water woes are certainly serious (at least in the west), the most tragic regions of the world are, predictably, the places where government policy is completely disconnected from local resource management, or where politics and war mix violently with water rights. China and the former Soviet Union have literally killed millions in man-made floods. The author's visit to the region around the Aral Sea was particularly depressing, as he describes a stunted, poisoned land where the people have no jobs, no hope, and no future. Then there is the Middle East, where Palestinians go thirsty in sight of Israeli swimming pools.
While there are some compelling stories in here, and enough facts and history to make you think, When the Rivers Run Dry was... well, a bit dry. Fred Pierce has been to many places and talked to many people, and what he's produced is a global atlas of water mismanagement, wrapped up in the end with a few cheery programs that might solve a few of them, and some suggestions that no one is really going to heed. He questions the wisdom of dam-building, says that cities like Los Angeles and Las Vegas need to be more conservation-minded, and that farmers worldwide need to use more water-efficient irrigation methods.
Yup, good luck with that.