Free Press, 2011, 368 pages
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.
Non-fiction books written by journalists tend to be rich in facts and history, mediocre on analysis, and sparse on style. The Big Thirst falls into that category. Charles Fishman examines the history and present state of water management and economics, making it a bit more interesting than the usual depressing itemizations of water shortages and all the ways we are screwing up our water supplies.
Human population growth, along with a growing middle-class in most countries, combined with global climate change, is making it harder and harder to supply water needs for vast populations. The good news is that there are technological and political measures that can be implemented to conserve enough water to serve our present needs (and, within reason, future ones). The bad news is that none of them are cost-free, and they require people to act rationally. For example, you can recycle waste water and purify it so that it's cleaner than bottled water, but the town of Toowoomba, Australia, faced with a severe water crisis, went apeshit at the thought of drinking "sewer water," and voted down the proposal. You can desalinate seawater, but desalinization plants have high energy costs and produce salt that has to be disposed of.
Fishman goes into great detail about the different types of water, the technology for cleaning, distributing, and managing water, and the economics of water. On the one hand, people with water security tend to use water more moderately than those who have to hoard it. On the other hand, people don't value free/cheap water because they take it for granted, which is why communities go nuts at any proposal to raise water costs, even by minute amounts. Water takes enormous amounts of infrastructure, and in much of the world (including the U.S.) it's badly in need of upgrades.
The facts and history are interesting. The Earth never "loses" water — every drop of water you drink has been recycled millions of times. It's been frozen in glaciers, at the bottom of the ocean, and pissed by dinosaurs, millions of times. IBM makes water for its microelectronics so pure that it's unhealthy to drink (it will leach minerals out of your body). There is actually water in rocks. If we could extract it, we'd have more water than we currently get from rivers and rainfall. All of our products, from food to electronics to steel to blue jeans, have a "water cost" associated with their production, often a very high one, and one that some companies are working diligently to reduce.
Fishman examines in detail the water distribution and usage in Las Vegas, in Imperial Valley, California, in Atlanta, George, and in Australia and India. The amount of work it takes to bring safe drinking water to millions of people is almost beyond comprehension. Unfortunately, with global climate change, more and more water reservoirs are drying up, rainfall amounts are decreasing, and the struggle for water access is going to make some parts of the world very ugly indeed. Some experts predict that water wars will be more violent and widespread than oil wars.
Fishman's conclusions are mostly sensible, if depressing, though his argument that the market will correct water shortages assumes that governments and corporate and agricultural interests don't distort and manipulate the market, as of course they will. He gets up on a soapbox inveigling against the stupidity of Americans who pay for bottled water when tap water is more tightly regulated and cleaner.
Water is not exactly the sexiest subject matter for a microhistory, maybe not full of interesting historical tidbits like fish or meth or orchids or corpses, but it's more important, and millions will die and wars will be fought over it.
Verdict: The Big Thirst is basically an extended piece of magazine journalism, like most microhistories, but it's a good read, and will make you appreciate your drinking water. It should also make you worry.
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