BOOKS & THE CULTURE Half Empty BY CHAR MILLER When the Rivers Run Dry: WaterThe Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century By Fred Pearce Beacon Press 320 pages, $26.95 of enough for you?” I know summer has arrived when I hear this rhetorical question, and was not disappointed last April as temperatures surged over the century mark and a perspiring colleague muttered that four-word query, spitting it out as if it were an expletive. She was right to swear, becatise since then the earth has baked and contracted, sending fissures through backyards and pastures, and breaking the surface of interstates and farm-to-markets. Valley ranchers, stuck in a 16-month drought, have sold off livestock in record numbers, seeking debt relief. “It’s devastating,” rancher Bill Meuth told the San Antonio Express -News. “There’s no grass left. This is probably the worst one I’ve ever seen.” San Marcos is equally stressed: Plummeting levels in the Edwards Aquifer have triggered water restrictions there for the first time in five years. San Antonio, New Braunfels, and Austin are preparing to unleash the water police. Meanwhile, from the Hill Country north to the Panhandle, red flags are flying: The lack of rain has created conditions for a fearsome fire season. In search of historical parallels, many have invoked the dread 1950s, when urban economies cracked, and ranchers and farmers went into arrears. Our plight now may be worse, says Larry Falconer, a Texas A&M extension economist: “Most of the folks I talk to have never seen anything like it, even in the 1950s.” If any of this sends a shiver down your spinehard to feel, I realize, in this suffocating heatthen you might not want to read Fred Pearce’s new book. A longtime contributor to New Scientist, the cutting-edge British science and technology publication, Pearce regularly probes worldwide water conflicts. In his journalism, such as Keepers of the Spring the Rivers Run Dry, he recycles many arguments. The amount of potable water is finite; although we may call ours the Blue Planet, what gives it that decided hue is undrinkable seawater. Left over for human consumption is a tiny fraction of the whole, approximately 7 billion acre-feet of water. While that’s a lot \(an acre-foot is equivalent to 326,700 gallons, the amount three or four U.S. may soon outstrip supply. In 1920, there were fewer than 2 billion people on Earth; today there are nearly 6.5 billion. More people need more water to quench increased thirst, an equation that leads to an unsettling conclusion: We’re in trouble. Our peril is magnified, for we also need much more water to produce enough food and clothing for our ballooning population. To bring this point home, Pearce takes us on a water inventory of our kitchens and closets. Eat hamburgers? A quarter-pounder requires upwards of 3,000 gallons to grow the grain a cow must consume so that you might eat the beef. Want cheese on that burger and fries on the side? It takes about 650 gallons to produce a pound of cheddar and 65 more for a pound of spuds. Even a slimming salad requires 130 gallons. As for the ubiquitous Tshirt, “you could fill roughly twenty-five bathtubs with water needed to grow the 9 ounces of cotton” to fabricate just one. Put this particular calculation into a macro context: Pakistan pumps “more than 40 million acre-feet of water a year from the Indus Riveralmost a third of the river’s total flow and enough to prevent any water from reaching the Arabian Seain order to grow cottony’ That’s a staggering number. Bigger still is 800 million acre-feet, the amount economists calculate is the international “virtual-water” market. Equivalent to the flow of 20 Nile Rivers, this market is virtual because whether “you buy a T-shirt made of Pakistani cotton, eat Thai rice, or drink coffee from Central America, you are influencing the hydrology of those regionstaking a share of the Indus River, the Mekong River, or the Costa Rican rains.” The United States is the biggest net exporter of virtual water, courtesy of its grain and meat production, and the Middle East is a leading net importer. Noting that “water-stressed Jordan … imports between 80 and 90 percent of its water in the form of food,” Pearce estimates that “more water flows into the Middle East each year as a result of virtual water than flows down the Nile.” Oh, yes, we’re in trouble. We are so despite \(even because constructed to impound stream flow behind mammoth dams. Whether along the Rio Grande, Colorado, or Columbia; the Nile, Indus, or Mekong; the Yangtze or the Yellow, waters have risen against massive convex walls, inundating canyons and communities, even as they store vast quantities of water for downstream users. Agriculture is the biggest consumer; with irrigation now possible in some of the world’s most arid regions, from deep West Texas to Outer Mongolia, once-brown lands have turned verdant, providing new work and endless opportunities. That’s what happened in Pakistan’s Sindh Province, where the Indus was harnessed to nurture cotton in the desert. But this green revolution has come with a black thumb: The diverted waters have created salt-caked fields, impelling farmers to abandon an estimated 100,000 acres a year; fish are dying out, and with “little silt or freshwater reaching the delta, the sea is advancing inland. At least a million acres of mangroves and farmlands have disappeared beneath the waves.” We can hardly take comfort in Pakistan’s plight. 28 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JULY 14, 2006
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