Page 21


-44AANOMPOS00111010111111111111.11111101,1,4bwrimosit BOOKS & THE CULTURE Waste Not BY JAMES MCWILLIAMS Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water by Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke The New Press 278 pages, $25.95. Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource by Marq de Villiers Mariner Books 368 pages, $15. I f there’s a current trend in the fickle world of non-fiction pub lishing, it’s towards writing books on discrete subjects whose osten sible simplicity belies an underly ing 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 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. Desertification 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 supenvironmental 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, pool, 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 rateone 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 centimeMiddle 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 deplet 24 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 4/12/02