Waste Not


The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water

Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource

If there’s a current trend in the fickle world of non-fiction publishing, it’s towards writing books on discrete subjects whose ostensible simplicity belies an underlying complexity. Authors have come to adopt a kind of thick-description approach to the material world that complicates the mundane. In the past five years, we’ve seen notable books on coffee, paper, sugar, nutmeg, the mosquito, the potato, cod, the breast, and the vibrator, to name only a few. (Well, OK, a vibrator might not be mundane.) It thus comes as no surprise that, as the world frets over oil, a group of writers has chosen to remind us that what we really should be paying attention to is an even more precious and life-sustaining substance: water.

Reading extensively about water evokes a strange hypersensitivity to this ubiquitous compound. In the 20 minutes between waking up and sitting down to start this review, for example, I’ve made a mental note that I’ve boiled water for coffee, flushed the toilet, brushed my teeth, wiped my 10-day old son’s butt with a damp cloth, gulped cold water dispensed from my refrigerator, and listened to a story on This American Life describing the shortage of fresh water on U.S. aircraft carriers in the Middle East. Should you choose to saturate yourself in this recent oeuvre of water books, beware: You won’t think about or drink water the same way again. Nor will you be especially refreshed, because the problems that these books highlight are so nasty and pervasive as to make any individual attempt to conserve the stuff trivial.

The news is downright dreadful. As Marq De Villiers tells us in Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource, the trouble with water “is that they’re not making any more of it.” Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke, in Blue Gold, echo his sentiment, writing, “Suddenly it’s so clear: The world is running out of water.” This “red alert” tone pervades both books, with much legitimacy.

Based on this shared premise, Water and Blue Gold primarily catalogue catastrophe. Globally, water demand tripled between 1950 and 1990. Groundwater depletion is “one of the great unseen but looming crises facing our planet.” Aquifers cannot be cleaned once polluted and they’re shrinking rapidly. Global warming trends are rapidly destroying wetlands. Desertifica-tion is spreading and suppressing rainfall. There’s hardly a river flowing that’s not choked with human runoff. As the world’s population rapidly expands, these developments are gradually intensifying into a ticking time bomb under the industrialized world’s complacent assumption that the water supply is endless.

We Texans have only to look in our backyard to appreciate the lunacy of this assumption. Commercial farms and feedlots throughout the state generate 280 billion pounds of manure annually. That’s a whopping 40 pounds of dung per Texan. Farms typically liquify the manure for use as fertilizer and then store the poop-soup in open lagoons. A portion of it inevitably evaporates or finds its away into surface water, lacing our drinking water with dangerously high levels of the antibiotics fed to cattle and clogging the air with more than 400 dangerous compounds (which rain picks up and returns to the water supply). The Ogallala Aquifer is another environmental debacle. It stretches from the Panhandle into South Dakota, and contains an estimated 4 trillion tons of water, making it the “single largest water-bearing unit in North America.” Texans, and our thirsty neighbors to the north, have poked more than 200,000 wells into the aquifer in order to irrigate more than eight million acres of farmland planted with non-native crops. Water currently leaves the aquifer 14 times faster than the recharge rate. The problem with an aquifer, moreover, is that there are no warning signs of its impending disappearance. One day, poof, it just dries up. And as De Villiers asks repeatedly, “then what?”

His question is more than rhetorical, and the world beyond Texas offers scores of devastating answers. Mexico City, which is “literally running out of water,” is sinking. The city depends on its aquifer for 70 percent of its water and is thus pumping it out at an unreplenishable rate–one that will lead to total depletion in 20 years. As air replaces water, “subsidence,” as it’s called, follows. According to Barlow and Clarke, “The city has sunk steadily into the mud for decades and is now subsiding at a rate of about 50 centimeters (about 20 inches) annually.” The Middle East has treated its aquifers with unparalleled ignorance. After its local aquifers dried up, Libya hired a South Korean firm to build a $32 billion pipeline from the sub-Saharan Nubian Aquifer into northern Libya’s cities and farms. Gadhafi promotes it as the “eighth wonder of the world,” but water experts predict that, at the current rate of extraction, the Nubian Aquifer will be toast by 2040, leaving Libya and surrounding countries without water. Air pockets left from depleted aquifers in Israel regularly swallow houses and buildings. Stories from China, India, and Russia–all carefully documented in both books–are equally bleak.

“Unfortunately,” Barlow and Clarke write, “lessons from these terrible stories haven’t changed humanity’s behavior.” Indeed, our attempts to cope with water shortages often make matters worse. Massive irrigation systems, dams, nonsustainable commercial farming, and reservoirs serve short-term interests at the expense of serious long-term environmental costs. Water and Blue Gold offer persuasive and extensive critiques of these man-made “solutions.” Take irrigation. In instances of extreme over-irrigation, it’s not unusual for entire water systems to disappear. In Africa Lake Chad has diminished by 90 percent over the last 40 years. Irrigation from the Aral Sea, bordered by Afghanistan, Iran, and five former Soviet countries, allowed the Soviet Union to prosper as the globe’s second largest exporter of cotton from 1940 to 1980. Today, the sea and its irrigation system exist as a fried puddle. The sea itself has lost 80 percent of its volume, its surrounding wetlands are gone, and “each year, wind kicks up 40 to 150 million tons of toxic salt-mixture from the dry sea bed and dump[s] it on the surrounding farmlands.” The Aral Sea, the classic case of over-irrigation, has become the regrettable template for poor environmental planning throughout the world.

Think it could get any worse? To an extent, Water and Blue Gold are comprehensive to a fault. That is, they layer anecdote upon horrifying anecdote to the point where their larger points dissolve in a generic heap of despair. But certain anecdotes are hard to forget. For me, it was this one, taken from Blue Gold: “[P]rescription pills leak chemicals into our public water systems” so extensively that “50 to 70 percent of all drugs pass through us,” including naproxen (an anti-inflammatory), carbamazepine (epilepsy and depression), ibuprofen, beta-blockers, and estrogen from birth control pills. (Although not mentioned in either of these books, reports of estrogen levels have been so high that in some rivers fish have undergone sex changes.)

It would be easy to get lost in these amazing tales of degradation, and doing so would be worth the read alone (the books provide abundant fodder to throw at smug libertarians who trash the environment under the bogus shield of philosophical principle). The authors do, however, have a larger point, and it’s here where their analyses finally diverge. Barlow and Clarke lay the blame for the world’s water crisis squarely and unequivocally at the feet of global corporations. Blue Gold lavishes scorn on governments that “are abdicating their responsibility to protect and conserve water” while pointing fingers at oil, gas, rubber, paper, car, and commercial farming industries who use more than 25 percent of the world’s water and trash much of the rest. Governments, they argue, should eschew globalization and embrace “a set of principles and ethical considerations directly opposed to the predominant standpoint of the global economy.” Water must be “decommodified,” they explain, restored to its natural state, and turned over to local public control. Only then will access to water become a right rather than a privilege.

De Villiers takes a pragmatic approach to the problem of water. He has little tolerance for rosy notions about water’s “natural state,” and instead works from the premise that the human race has drastically manipulated the world’s most precious resource for so long that we’ve quashed all hopes of restoring it to a pristine ecological state. It’s a perspective perhaps tinged with defeatism, and one that idealistic greens may not tolerate. Nevertheless, it advocates solutions that embrace the technologies that we’ve previously used to build dams, irrigation systems, and reservoirs to now construct more ecologically sound measures that maximize and preserve the world’s remaining supply of clean drinking water. Whereas Barlow and Clarke support a grassroots, aggressively confrontational political challenge to the World Bank, IMF, and the “Lords of Water” to abandon their wasteful projects, De Villiers looks to “imaginative technologies” to save the day–or at least allow us to stay hydrated in those that remain.

Blue Gold calls for rebellion. Water seeks to carefully tweak the status quo. De Villiers distrusts an exclusively political approach and sees more hope in engineered solutions run by scientists–solutions like “water condoms” that tug water through the ocean from an area of high supply to an area of low supply, desalination technologies, drip irrigation, and closed-cycle hydroculture. It’s not especially sexy, it doesn’t satisfy the environmentalist urge to stick it to the corporate abusers, and it’s not a solution that’s going to stir the political passions that rage at World Bank protests. But as hope rapidly evaporates, De Villier’s ideas have the most likely chance of being heard. Plus, once established, these projects might filter through political systems throughout the world and wash away once and for all the corporate scum that has so long treated water as an endlessly exploitable resource. We can all drink to that.

James McWilliams is a writer in Austin.