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The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water | [Charles Fishman]

The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water

The water coming out of your tap is four billion years old and might have been slurped by a Tyrannosaurus Rex. We will always have exactly as much water on Earth as we have ever had. Water cannot be destroyed, and it can always be made clean enough for drinking again. In fact, water can be made so clean that it actually becomes toxic. As Charles Fishman brings vibrantly to life in this delightful narrative excursion, water runs our world in a host of awe-inspiring ways, which is both the promise and the peril of our unexplored connections to it.
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Publisher's Summary

The water coming out of your tap is four billion years old and might have been slurped by a Tyrannosaurus Rex. We will always have exactly as much water on Earth as we have ever had. Water cannot be destroyed, and it can always be made clean enough for drinking again. In fact, water can be made so clean that it actually becomes toxic. As Charles Fishman brings vibrantly to life in this delightful narrative excursion, water runs our world in a host of awe-inspiring ways, which is both the promise and the peril of our unexplored connections to it.

Taking listeners from the wet moons of Saturn to the water-obsessed hotels of Las Vegas, and from a rice farm in the Australian outback to a glimpse into giant vats of soup at Campbell's largest factory, he reveals that our relationship to water is conflicted and irrational, neglected and mismanaged. Whether we will face a water scarcity crisis has little to do with water and everything to do with how we think about water - how we use it, connect with it, and understand it.

Portraying and explaining both the dangers - in 2008, Atlanta came just 90 days from running completely out of drinking water - and the opportunities, such as advances in rainwater harvesting and businesses that are making huge breakthroughs in water productivity, The Big Thirst will forever change the way we think about water, our crucial relationship to it, and the creativity we can bring to ensuring we always have plenty of it.

©2011 Charles Fishman (P)2011 Tantor

What the Critics Say

"A timely warning about the dwindling global water supply." (Kirkus)

What Members Say

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  •  
    Lynn BEAUMONT, TX, United States 04-21-11
    Lynn BEAUMONT, TX, United States 04-21-11 Member Since 2005
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    "Informative Book"

    Charles Fishnman, also the author of The Wal-Mart Effect, has returned with a book on water. It is a look at water through history, its use over the last 100 years, and the current issues involving its distribution. BUT WAIT, there is more, don't touch that dial...Fishman brings the reader up to speed on the current water enviornment. This is an interesting book that will be enjoyed by a broad section of the reading public. Fishman is informative, the book is well written and issues are covered in a thoughtful way. Of particular help, is Fishman's extensive descriptions of cities and towns around the world and how they are dealing with water supply. I came away from the volume with my eyes opened to the problems we face and the opportunities that are apparent. The reading of Stephen Hoye is excellent.

    19 of 19 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Paul Krasner 05-13-11 Member Since 2005
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    "Mandatory listening for EVERYONE"

    This is a superb book and one that should be required reading for every human being. Instead of reading some of the drivel (classics) in high school, kids should read about the single most important element in life, water. There is something enigmatic about our attitude about water. Our attitude about water is something akin to the old song line, "you only really appreciate something when you lose it". This book is not a polemic or screaming about yet another crisis. Although water is becoming a crisis, his point is educational. He talks about every aspect of water. I especially like the parts in which he described the chemistry and physical uniqueness of water. One fact about water that absolutely blew me away: Every molecule of water that is on the Earth has been here since its formation. We neither add nor subtract water. It just gets moved around. We are so spoiled regarding water in the US especially in the part in which I live. He points out the confusion in our minds about water. The author compares our 24/7 water accessibility with the supply in India. In most Indian communities, even the wealthy ones, water is only available one or two hours a day. In some parts of India, an entire day is consumed (mainly by school aged girls) walking to a distant water supply and carrying it back on their heads. For us, water is virtually free and we waste it with impunity. People complain about a dollar a month increase in the cost of water supply while they remain silent about a 10% cable TV charge. Is it really necessary to flush our solid waste with purified, chemically treated potable water? Suffice it to say that after reading this book, my head was straightened out and I now turn off the water when brushing my teeth. The book is very well written and Charles Fishman does a great job, as always. This book gets my vote for Science book of the year.

    13 of 13 people found this review helpful
  •  
    David Halethorpe, MD, United States 01-30-13
    David Halethorpe, MD, United States 01-30-13 Member Since 2010

    Indiscriminate Reader

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    "Your tap water is fine, really!"

    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.

    11 of 11 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Joshua Kim Etna, NH, United States 06-10-12
    Joshua Kim Etna, NH, United States 06-10-12 Member Since 2005

    mostly nonfiction listener

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    "Distilling 'The Big Thirst'"

    The big idea in Charles Fishman's excellent The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water is that water is both an essential and scarce resource, and that almost universally governments and individuals have failed to manage this resource.
    Our water failures are across the board.
    We have failed to:

    Put a realistic price on water consumption, allowing politics and sheer lunacy to determine who uses water and how much they use rather than the market and mechanisms of supply and demand.

    Maintain, much less improve, our existing century old water infrastructure (the pipes, pumping stations, waste treatment facilities, reservoirs, etc) - leading to enormous water wastage and risks of water delivery failure.

    Manage existing water supplies intelligently, including our failures to appropriately conserve and re-use water, and our continued insistence on sending high quality drinking water into our toilets and on to our yards and golf courses.
    Educate ourselves about water and the water supply.

    This last failure is, I think, particularly troubling across higher ed. Our students are not going to understand water locally, nationally or globally unless we teach them about water. Water can unify disciplines of economics, sociology, history, political science, chemistry, biology, environmental studies, and many more. We could use water as a lens to understand the interactions of science, history and politics. Water represents a teachable moment.

    Fishman tells the water story by going to places and talking with people who are grappling with the management and delivery of water and water systems. From Vegas to India, Atlanta to Dubai, water economics and water politics are dominating the thinking and planning efforts of many companies and governments. The ed tech folks amongst us will particularly enjoy the description of how water is utilized in the making of computer chips (and be amazed how much embedded water is in your iPad).

    Highly recommended. Smart, engaging, well-written, and disturbing.

    7 of 7 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Thomas Chicago, IL, United States 04-30-11
    Thomas Chicago, IL, United States 04-30-11 Member Since 2004

    I struggled in the sixties to get a college education, barely graduated, spent a life in the phone company as a technician in a call center.

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    "Important, well-written book."

    I found this book interesting to hear, well-written, well-researched, and very important to the survival of our civilizations.

    4 of 4 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Tim United States 12-01-12
    Tim United States 12-01-12 Member Since 2010

    My reviews are always pending.

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    "Award Winning Information"

    When Al Gore released his movie, An Inconvenient Truth in 2006, it won an Academy Award for best documentary. Charles Fishman should win some kind of award in "The Big Thirst" because this could be another documentary that could overwhelm the screens. The Pulitzer Prize should give an award to Fishman in this category because this is the best informational book thus far.

    Water is a natural resource that we need to survive no matter what is your economical status and no matter where you live. If you want to know everything about water, such as Las Vegas or how they meter water in different metropolis or not having 24 hour of service that people in America takes for granted, then, this will be your best book that you will ever read.

    You don't have to be an environmentalist to be concern of water. I don't recycle, drive a gas guzzler, and like having more nuclear power plants, but I can't stand a drippy faucet or a running toilet.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    c Lantau, Hong Kong 08-01-11
    c Lantau, Hong Kong 08-01-11 Member Since 2011
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    "Excellent"

    Everyone should hear message about water use. It is well written backed by facts and numbers.
    Very good narration.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    LongerILiveLessIKnow Pennsylvania 11-21-13
    LongerILiveLessIKnow Pennsylvania 11-21-13 Member Since 2012
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    "Did not meet high expectations."

    For many reasons, I had high expectations for this book: a trusted friend’s recommendation; the high Amazon/Audible ratings; and Fishman’s track record (the Wal-Mart Effect).

    By no means is the book a dud, but it’s not profound either. Here are my main two beefs and then I’ll spend some time explaining what the book does well.

    First, unnecessary repetition pervades the entire book. For example, the first chapter is dedicated almost entirely to describing how water is enmeshed in all aspects of our lives. It keeps going long after its point has been made. Even the repetition of the word “water” – repeated well over 100 times in the first chapter and appearing multiple times in nearly every paragraph – grated on me (at least listening to the audio). In later chapters, Fishman repeats this tendency, not just leaving no stone unturned, but turning the same stones over, again and again.

    Second, while Chapter 1 tells us that there’s a “new era of water” coming, Fishman’s more nuanced thesis doesn’t start to crystalize until later in the book.

    My advice, should you choose to read this book, is to start by listening to the last chapter first. There, Fishman makes clear that this book is not an alarmist book or doomsday prophecy. Instead, we learn that the book’s core message is this: when the externalities of water use are not priced into consumption, water consumers make poor, non-sustainable decisions. No surprise there. And, hearteningly, when there’s an economic incentive to manage water use such as for large consumers of water (e.g., computer chip manufacturers, large hotels), those large consumers make smart decisions that cut costs and save water resources. Fishman also provides cautionary examples where municipalities failed to undertake needed water innovation because of politics, inertia, and outdated expectations about water.

    Finally, the narrator is one of my least favorites for reaons I can’t quite put my finger on.

    4 of 5 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Larry Yorba Linda, CA, United States 09-30-13
    Larry Yorba Linda, CA, United States 09-30-13 Member Since 2009

    No matter where you go... there you are!

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    "Each opening of the tap, reminds me of this book."
    Any additional comments?


    This book was an absolutely fascinating read!

    One basic premise of this book is the fact that all the water on Earth has been here since the beginning of time. It is not being created, and it is not being destroyed. It is just constantly moving and being recycled. Odds are, much of the water molecules you will drink today have been urinated by dinosaurs, many... many... times in the past.

    The author also presents numerous case studies of modern cities and their relationships/ challenges/ initiatives with water. Just a few of the many, diverse locals detailed are Las Vegas, Delhi, Perth...

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Raleigh greensboro, NC, United States 04-08-13
    Raleigh greensboro, NC, United States 04-08-13 Member Since 2009
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    "water & greed & stupidity are not scarce"

    is our water supply really endangered or scarce ?
    should municipalities make water expensive or cost-free ?
    is there any part of modern life not influenced by water ?

    charles fishman provides an very entertaining answer to these questions
    the text shows he has studied these issues across history and culture
    but the lively and personal narrative style make it an easy read

    my favorite parts of the book deal with human stupidity and ingenuity
    the variety of responses to local water issues is simply astounding
    at times greed and fear seem as influential as rainfall and water treatment

    the bottom line seems to be that water is not really scarce
    but it will become a valuable commodity within the next generation
    as our grandparents would tell us, we must not take it for granted

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
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  • Alastair
    Shrewsbury, United Kingdom
    12/11/11
    Overall
    "informed, interesting and provoking"

    I was not sure if this book was going to be dry in the opening chapter but quickly developed a thirst for more. Each chapter is extremely informative yet entertaining to read(listen). The written style is kept concise and translates well into an audiobook. It is clear this book has been researched and strands from case studies are intermingled making it easy to remember what came previously if listening in instalments. I work in the water industry and learned much from this book. I am likely to refer to examples and anecdotes in conversation in the future. A very enjoyable and thought provoking book. Thank you.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  • J
    Dun Laoghaire, Ireland
    5/30/11
    Overall
    "1st chapter good"

    I got this because of a good review in "Nature". The first chapter is really interesting. However later on it is highly focussed on America. I am finding it hard to be interested in the water usage of golf courses and hotel washing machines in Las Vagas. Not sure if I will finish this!
    I suspect the other reviewer only read the first chapter!!

    1 of 2 people found this review helpful
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