Beacon Press, 2006, 336 pages
Throughout history, rivers have been our foremost source of fresh water both for agriculture and for individual consumption, but now economists say that by 2025 water scarcity will cut global food production by more than the current U.S. grain harvest.
In this groundbreaking book, veteran science correspondent Fred Pearce focuses on the dire state of the world's rivers to provide our most complete portrait yet of the growing world water crisis and its ramifications for us all.
Pearce traveled to more than 30 countries examining the current state of crucial water sources like the Indus River in Pakistan, the Colorado River in the U.S., and the Yellow and Yangtze rivers in China. Pearce deftly weaves together the complicated scientific, economic, and historic dimensions of the water crisis, showing us its complex origins - from waste to wrong-headed engineering projects to high-yield crop varieties that have saved developing countries from starvation but are now emptying their water reserves. He reveals the most daunting water issues we face today, among them the threat of flooding in China's Yellow River, where rising silt levels will prevent dikes from containing floodwaters; the impoverishment of Pakistan's Sindh, a once-fertile farming valley now destroyed by the 15 million tons of salt that the much-depleted Indus deposits annually on the land but cannot remove; the disappearing Colorado River, whose reservoirs were once the lifeblood of seven states but which could easily dry as overuse continues; and the poisoned springs of Palestine and the Jordan River, where Israeli control of the water supply has only fed conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
The situation is dire, but not without remedy. Pearce argues that the solution to the growing worldwide water shortage is not more and bigger dams, but a greater efficiency and a new water ethic based on managing the water cycle for maximum social benefit rather than narrow self-interest.
This book covers most of the same ground as The Big Thirst, by Charles Fishman. I think Fishman's book was better, as it was more focused and covered the historical and scientific aspects of water resource management in more detail. However, while Fishman's book mostly looked at three particular places facing water crises — Las Vegas, India, and Australia — Fred Pierce's book goes around the world.
The Aral Sea
This place is particularly depressing. The Soviets began draining it to irrigate surrounding desert for cotton and other agriculture. The end of Soviet rule has done nothing to improve the region, which is now a toxic, salty wasteland.
The Dead Sea
The Middle East is looking at an even more volatile future, with water wars possibly playing a central role. The evaporation of the Dead Sea is just one indication of the problem. Springs, underground aquifers, and rivers are all very limited in the region, and of course shared by mutually hostile factions — the Israelis, the Jordanians, the Palestinians, etc. Israel controls how much water the Palestinians get, and while Palestinian wells run dry in sight of Israeli swimming pools, the Israelis are understandably reluctant to give the Palestinians control over any spigots that might turn off their own water.
The Salton Sea
The Salton Sea, in California, was created artificially, and accidentally, by dumping the Colorado River into the Sonora Desert. For a while, it was a vacation hot spot. But the sea has been drying up — at a rate of up to 6 feet per year — and is becoming wasteland.
Around the world, from the Yangtze to the Indus to the Colorado to the Nile to the Mekong, humans have been damming up rivers at a prodigious rate for over a century. One of Pierce's main theses is that dams are beloved by governments and engineers and have long been assumed to benefit agriculture and the economy, but that their benefits have often proven to be short-term or even negative. Many dams have been put in place over the objections of scientists, run over-cost, not delivered the benefits promised, devastated the region, and almost always, as Pierce puts it, "water runs uphill to money," meaning that if anyone benefits from a dam, it's the urban dwellers miles away, not the local farmers and ranchers who end up being displaced and losing their water. To say nothing of the environment.
Pierce proposes a number of water management schemes that would involve less damming and more efficient irrigation. The "blue revolution" being advocated no longer looks at crop yields in terms of yield per acre, but yield per gallon of water used. There are, for example, even rice varieties being developed now that require less water.
All that being said, books like these are depressing both because of the scale of devastation described, and the fact that while the author points out a number of responsible and sane solutions that could be implemented to provide water to everyone, it's pretty clear that political and economic forces will not allow this to happen. Instead, rivers continue to be dammed in often foolhardy schemes that are more about demonstrating industrial prowess than actually delivering water and power (Pierce points out that autocratic governments like the USSR, China, and African dictators have been particularly bad about this), irrigation methods that waste much of the water before it ever gets to the crops will continue to be used, and cities like Las Vegas and Los Angeles will continue emptying the Colorado River, draining non-renewable underground water tables, and looking north to the Great Lakes and Canada for their water needs.
It is the Tragedy of the Commons on a global scale. Many of the farmers Fred Pierce interviews, even in impoverished third world countries, are very much aware of the problem and what the consequences of their short-term thinking will be. But as they point out, if they're the only ones to conserve, it just means they'll go hungry faster than their neighbors, and accomplish nothing overall.
When the Rivers Run Dry covers nearly every continent. Almost every great river is in peril, but while lakes and rivers running dry is visibly distressing, what is perhaps more frightening is the draining of underground aquifers, which is water that will never come back regardless of how the climate changes or doesn't, and which not only depletes non-renewable resources but leaves the earth itself more porous and unstable and can cause erosion and even earthquakes.
While Pierce's survey is comprehensive, it's rather dry, and he also offers a lot of facts and opinions without necessarily backing them up or sourcing them, leaving us to take him at his word. He does little in the way of even examining whether there is another side to the argument, which may make many of these issues seem less complex and problematic (in terms of what the ideal solution should be) than they are.
Verdict: When the Rivers Run Dry is an interesting if depressing read, but mostly an around-the-world tour of water mismanagement. It's not a bad book but seems to be under-sourced, and I would recommend The Big Thirst as a superior book on the same topic. 6/10.
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