Whose Water is it?

Whose Water is it?
Edited by Bernadette McDonald and Douglas Jehl

Each day at least 10,000 people worldwide die from disease-infected water. This is just one of the startling statistics contained in this collection of 13 essays, which address a wide variety of water-related issues, including global scarcity, pollution, privatization, poor distribution, and desalinization. In many parts of the world, useable fresh water (about 1% of the planet’s total) is a resource more valuable than oil and even more essential to life. This book makes clear the sobering connection between inadequate clean water and poverty and the potential for increasing international conflicts (especially in parched places such as Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa), as well as some of the steps that might be taken to alleviate these problems: conservation, technological innovation, and effective cross-boundary water management. Its contributors make a very compelling argument: that we use too much water, waste it foolishly, and degrade the environment by draining underground aquifers faster than they can be replenished.

By 2015, some 3 billion people will live in countries where fresh water is in short supply; by 2050, the number could be as high as 7 billion. Numbers this large are difficult to comprehend, which is why the most specific examples are the most horrifying. Consider the Taliban’s unauthorized construction of a dam on the Helmand River in eastern Afghanistan in the 1990s and its effect on neighboring Iran, where a 4,000-square-kilometer lake has been sucked bone-dry. All fish have disappeared and so has the village that until recently depended on catching them. What remains is an exposed lakebed, rapidly being covered by dunes from frequent sandstorms. A modest example maybe, but a particularly haunting symbol for a growing global problem.

The book’s 13 compelling essayists include Maude Barlow who, in her essay “The World’s Water: A Human Right or a Corporate Good?,” looks at the issue of ownership. Besides private companies stepping in to operate municipal water supplies-as happened in a Bolivian city, with disastrous effects-organizations such as the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank are powerful allies working for the “liberalization of national laws in relationship to water”; water, she argues, should be a public trust, its management and distribution built on the “twin foundations of conservation and equity.”

As a poster country for poor water management, China has almost no equal, and several essays in the book highlight the problems facing a country where dangerous floods threaten the south, while northern farms and industries go dry. “Why is China running out of water?” asks Marq De Villiers in his essay, “Three Rivers.” “The answer is the same as for the rest of the world: it isn’t running out. It’s only running out in places where it’s needed most.”

Other problems addressed include pollution, irrigation, the draining of “fossil aquifers” and the burgeoning population in many dry areas. Conflicts over water have begun to increase in number, scale and violence, but new ideas are being tested in hard-pressed Saudi Arabia, San Diego and other deserts-efforts include community planning, desalinization, use of gray water, conservation and reforestation. Though the book doesn’t shy away from painful truths about global water use, it is far from a doomsday report, instead offering fresh insight and constructive, real-world solutions from a well-chosen group of authors.

Published by: National Geographic Books 2004. ISBN: 0792273753
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