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A look at selected books on the looming water crisis

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In publishing, there’s a category I think of as Paul Revere Books: They all sound the same alarm. A bunch often go to press over a short span, the prose hopped on adrenaline, the authors virtually cupping their hands to shout forth dark facts, stats, and stories. “The water crisis is coming! The water crisis is coming!” doesn’t conjure as sharp an image as redcoats on the march. But the situation is dire; the books are burgeoning; and I’d like to welcome you to this week’s immersion experience.

“The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Freshwater in the Twenty-First Century” (Scribner, 2011) cleared up my first question: How can there be a water crisis when two-thirds of our planet’s surface is covered in water? Author Alex Prud’homme explains that only 3 percent of that water is fresh, and a mere 0.3 percent is both gettable and clean enough for people to use. So we’re in a potable water crisis. This is harder to accept in moist New England, than parched Arizona. I’m writing this during yet another rainstorm, for instance. But Prud’homme says we are “waking from a forty-year nap,” just grasping that the Clean Water Act of the 1970s — remember the days of Love Canal and the burning Cuyahoga River? — was hardly a forever solution. Indeed, between 2004 and 2009, there were 506,000 violations of clean water laws. SHOCKINGLY, LESS THAN 3 percent were punished by the Environmental Protection Agency.

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Paul Revere Books also say we’re part of the problem, and my guilt went from a trickle to downpour pretty fast: “The Ripple Effect” busted me for using antibacterial soap, for instance, since I’m rinsing its endocrine-disrupter chemicals, like triclocarban, into the water supply.

And this next book nabbed me for buying salad mix (with evaporation and seepage it can take a whopping 300 liters of water to grow one bag). Salad mix and soap, of course, are merely the tip of the (melting) iceberg, as I learned in Maude Barlow’s “Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water” (New Press, 2007). Oh, yes, she makes you feel bad to be an American.

Between our flush toilets, tended lawns, and swimming pools, Barlow says, we EACH use nearly 600 liters a day versus 6 liters for every African. (Fifty liters is considered universally adequate and, to be fair, a later book quoted the American average as 150 liters.) Whatever that liter meter, it’s profligate in a world where 2.1 million Indian children die of diseases caused by bad water each year, and 90 percent of groundwater UNDER CHINA’S MAJOR CITIES is contaminated.

It’s also a world where the land under irrigation has tripled, siphoning off so many rivers that many no longer reach the sea: The Colorado River is particularly notorious, and its misuse highlights many of today’s titles. With global warming (thus more droughts) and population growth (thus more thirsty people) our survival will come down to “nothing less than reclaiming water as a commons,” as Barlow writes.

Yes, but it’s not like I can box up my H2O and send it to Mozambique, right? “All water problems are local,” admits Charles Fishman in “The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water” (Simon & Schuster, 2011). I had to take most of the PAUL Revere writers in small doses, but Fishman is good company, kindly offering drops of solace to keep you going. Partly due to water conservation measures in agriculture and business, Americans use less water per person now than we did in 1955. And the “secret life” from his title cues many revelations. Who knew that water (300,000 gallons worth) was used to suppress the sound of NASA’s space shuttle rockets? (Without that cushion, sound waves would tear the shuttle apart.) Or that water crises foment educational crises? When rivers recede in the Third World, for instance, girls must walk farther to fetch water and thus miss school.

Between our flush toilets, tended lawns, and swimming pools, Barlow says, we EACH use nearly 600 liters a day versus 6 liters for every African.

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Yes, we are “water illiterate” says Fishman, wincingly. But water is still “tirelessly resilient.” Indeed, it’s the “ultimate renewable resource,” says Fred Pearce in “When the Rivers Run Dry: The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century” (Beacon, 2006). This one’s a rich stew of jeremiad and travelogue. Pearce takes us to Irbil, a city in Iraq where, 2,700 years ago, the slaves of King Sennacherib built remarkable underground water-tunnel systems called “qanats.” And also to central India, to learn of an ingenious drip-irrigation system farmers have jury-rigged from tubes that WERE ORIGINALLY DESIGNED TO hold “Pepsee” street vendor candies. Pearce thinks we must impose more realistic water pricing (it’s so cheap there’s no incentive to conserve). And he predicts rainwater harvesting will become a policy mainstay. In India, they’re already diverting monsoon rains to compromised aquifers. He also points out what happens when crops WITH HIGH WATER NEEDS are grown in countries WITH LOW WATER SUPPLIES: Cotton, a supremely thirsty crop, has sopped up much of Russia’s Aral Sea and the Indus River in Pakistan.

We know that eating local conserves fossil fuels. But we don’t stop to consider how exported “virtual water”— the water it takes to produce an Israeli tomato, a bag of Kenyan coffee, or a cotton T-shirt from Bangladesh — drains the country of origin. We must, Fishman says, get our heads around the fact that water reform must GO HAND IN HAND WITH energy reform, that the green revolution NEEDS TO blend with the blue revolution. Call it the “turquoise revolution” (and I want credit, if it becomes a catchphrase).

“Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis” (Beacon, 2011) sluices the story back here, where author Cynthia BARNETT has a field day with stateside hypocrisy. “Sustainable Sacramento,” for instance, may be largely eco-friendly, but the capital city wastes more water than anywhere else in California, partly because it won’t raise water rates. In contrast, Sarasota, Fla., passed one of our NATION’S strictest water-use laws, demanding new YARDS be no more than 50 percent sod and allowing them to be watered just once a week. Not long after, the city dropped from 140 gallons per person usage to an impressive 80. Monterey, CALIF., even gives residents rebates if they tear out lawns and lay down synthetic turf. And San Antonio requires businesses to re-use their air conditioning condensate.

“Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What to Do About It” (Island, 2009) praises Utah, which developed an innovative water broker system, whereby a set number of water permits are traded (a new developer can’t build unless he gets someone else to retire their permit). This avoids “too many straws in the same glass,” in author Robert Glennon’s nice phrase. Glennon lays out why Las Vegas is a villain (the Bellagio fountain will seem obscene), and Santa Monica, Calif., is a hero (no one diverts storm water better). But all in all, he says, it’s an “appalling job performed at the state and local levels” and he calls for “an invigorated federal role in water management.”

“Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind” (Bloomsbury, 2011) brings the high-water mark of perspective. Through majestic coverage of everyone from the Mesopotamians to the Mayans, author Brian Fagan claims we have reached the third age of water. The first was all about scarcity, and thus ancient civilizations cherished the stuff, deemed it sacred. Next came the Industrial Revolution, with its mighty mills and dams and canals, and we took water for granted, treating it like a commodity rather than the very source of life. Now we are back to not enough. As such, these fierce titles demand humility, responsibility, and urgency. That’s something in Paul Revere Books, surely, to revere.

Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore@comcast.net.
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