When the rivers run dry — the review

by David Zetland

When the rivers run dry — the review
re-posted with permission from author from Aguanomics 

Fred Pearce is an English journalist who’s been covering water issues for 20+ years (he’s just published a book on land grabs, review to come). I read the second edition of When the rivers run dry: Water — the defining crisis of the twenty-first century (2006) several months ago.

The 320pp book — one of the best general overviews of water problems that I’ve read [1] — is organized into 10 sections with 34 short chapters. Each chapter describes how “a river runs dry” (abundance ends) in some part of the world. Here are some ideas I noted and thoughts I had while reading:

  • Small-scale farmers and fishermen who cannot make a living when water is directed to larger and more powerful groups will not only be unemployed — they can turn to violence. (That’s not an excuse to subsidize them; it’s an excuse to protect their legal/traditional property rights and NOT subsidize others!)
  • The “risk-free” living of Indian farmers who use subsidized electricity to pump water that’s sold at market prices to dyeing manufacturers (polluters) is an appalling example of unintended consequences. The same can be said of the “confident” engineers who sank so many wells into arsenic-laced groundwater in Bangladesh, contributing to the (ongoing) poisoning of millions.
  • The rise of our modern consumptive lifestyle since the Industrial Revolution is not just based on mining (and burning) fossil fuels, but mining (and using) fossil water. Neither trend is sustainable in terms of growth, consumption or the environment, and I doubt that human ingenuity will overcome the damages that come from these consumptions, either to maintain our own quality of life or restore the ecosystems that make that quality of life possible.
  • Fewer Saudi farmers are growing wheat in the desert (good!). Instead, they are growing alfalfa to feed to cows for milk (arg!). Along the same lines, note that the solution to high “virtual water” consumption is NOT to stop international trade but to make sure that virtual-water-exporting countries have sustainable management practices in place. These will raise the price of traded goods (food, textiles, etc.). Higher prices that reflect water scarcity will reduce demand for that product.
  • Israel may not have any wells in the West Bank, but their wells on the border of the West Bank draw water from the Mountain Aquifer that underlies both Israel and the West Bank. Those wells — combined with Israeli controls over Palestinian wells (no new wells or repairs) — means that Israel has a de facto “apartheid” water policy that transfers Palestinian water to Israelis and deprives Palestinian people and farmers of the water they could use for their own living and economic activities. These under-ground policies match above-ground settlements in nationalist cruelty.
  • Every civilization has diverted water to its own uses (without respect to nature), but the Soviets — citing perhaps their typical excuse that the ends (a proletarian paradise) justifies the means — took diversions and pollution to an extreme in implementing policies that disastrously damaged the Aral Sea. It’s interesting to see these policies continued in Uzbekistan (but not so much in Kazakhstan) under its Stalinist dictator.
  • “Sewage irrigation” may be efficient in terms of directing water to another use, but it is not good for one’s health. Better to clean the water in some way (the Israelis ARE good at that) before applying it to food — or better — fiber crops.
  • “Desalination is an [expensive] supply-side solution to a demand-side problem” (p. 255). Definitely.
  • The return of rain harvesting and check dams in rural India is doing a lot to conserve water and restore water tables. These low tech solutions are more efficient than big dams that evaporate water. Given that observation, ask yourself which is better, flood- or drip-irrigation? Flood can be better if the excess water is absorbed into groundwater (to be used later) instead of being held/stored in a surface reservoir that evaporates more water than is saved through “efficient” drip. Remember to keep track of water in the ENTIRE system.
  • A move away from hard infrastructure (dams, dikes, levees) towards natural infrastructure (flood plains, groundwater aquifers, wetlands) promises to deliver human safety, environmental health, and economic efficiency. Engineers who like concrete and politicians who like cutting ribbons may be upset with this change, but there are advantages to using the tools that Nature has refined over those that humans think they understand.

When I was planning TEoA, I was unsure whether to write a book discussing water issues around the world or in the western US. I ended up writing an “locationless” book, so that readers could mold the ideas and discussion to fit their local details. I am glad that I did this, especially since Pearce has had written an excellent book with examples from around the world. I think his book (like the ones with * below) complements TEoA, in the sense that he describes problems while I describe the forces underlying the problems and how to address them (books with ** describe problems, origins, and solutions).

Bottom Line: I give this book FIVE STARS for Pearce’s varied examples, clear analysis and accurate message: we cannot continue to dry out our rivers for special interests and traditional methods of mismanagement. We, the people, will benefit from restoring water flows into their traditional paths, borrowing and repaying water as it passes by.

[1] Here are my reviews of other water-related books that you might consider reading — after mine, of course 🙂
General discussions of water management, use and crisis:
* Blue Revolution (5 stars): Excellent examples and theme.
Take Me to the Source (5 stars): A nice wonder around the way we live with water.
* The Big Thirst (4 stars): Snappy writing, sometimes sloppy.
The Future of Water (4 stars): A look into the future but uneven quality.
* Unquenchable (4 stars): Good examples but perhaps too many.
Running Out of Water (3 stars): Verges on boring.
Aqua Shock (1 star): A waste of paper (or electrons).
Specialized discussions of a particular water dimension:
* Dead Pool (5 stars): Updating Cadillac Desert on mismanaged infrastructure in the western US.
** Heart of Dryness (5 stars): Botswana’s Bushmen can thrive in the desert, despite the government.
** Priests and Programmers (5 stars): Amazing description of traditional irrigation in Bali.
* Water and the California Dream (5 stars): Excellent history of disastrous policies.
** Water Follies (5 stars): A fantastic discussion of the mismanagement of groundwater in the US.
** Water for Sale (5 stars): Why private water companies can help the poor.
Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind (4 stars): A detailed archaeologist’s exploration (see Water below).
Governing the Tap (4 stars): A detailed look into water management districts in the US.
* Liquid Assets (4 stars): A deep look at water mismanagement in the Middle East.
Rivers of Gold (4 stars): Some case studies of water markets in the western US.
* Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization (4 stars): Excellent (see Elixir above).

NB: I give stars based on the author’s fulfillment of the promises made on the cover. I am also biased in my reviews to the extent that they reflect my knowledge when I write them. I may be a tougher reviewer over time, but I TRY to review for readers who may not have read any/all of these books — let alone worked on water issues for years!