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  • Writer's pictureDave Freedman

The Global Freshwater Crisis

Updated: Apr 9, 2023

5 Outstanding Books about Water Scarcity and the Future of Civilization.

The Aral Sea

The Aral Sea, 1989 (left) and 2014 (right)

Reviewed by Dave Freedman. Freedman has worked as a financial and legal journalist since 1978. He earned a bachelor’s degree in geography from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Many geologists and geographers realized 50 years ago that we are entering an age of water scarcity. Clean water would someday be the world’s most coveted resource, even more valuable than oil The combination of increasing demand for clean water (due mainly to population growth) and decreasing supply of it (due to depletion and pollution) would lead to the soaring price of clean water and epic conflicts over water resources.

Here are a few facts to support that premise, provided mainly by the United Nations and UNICEF (based on data from 2009-18):

  • While global water supply has remained constant over millions of years, the demand has increased six-fold just in the last century.

  • The rate of demand is increasing roughly double the rate of population growth due to irrigation, mining, manufacturing, and other industrial uses as well as household and commercial consumption.

  • Over 2 billion people live in countries experiencing high water stress.

  • It is estimated that by 2040, one in four of the world’s children under 18 – some 600 million in all – will be living in areas of extremely high water stress.

  • With the existing climate change scenario, by 2030, water scarcity in some arid and semi-arid places will displace between 24 million and 700 million people.

Global climate change is accelerating scarcity, causing shifts in the patterns of ocean currents, storms, floods, droughts, and sea level which could result in potentially cataclysmic mass migration and critical scarcity of clean water in many parts of the world, including many of the biggest coastal cities. Only pandering idiots deny this.

As the demand for clean water keeps increasing, the supply keeps declining, and conflicts sprout like algae blooms, there will be major policy debates, legislative and regulatory action, water treaties and alliances, diversion and exportation schemes, and mobilization of new security forces to defend valuable water resources from raids by water crime syndicates. Here are some of the books that I read over the past 10 years that support the foregoing opinions and conclusions, and offer some solutions and cause for hope.

Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water By Marc Reisner Penguin, first printing 1986, updated 1993

Cadillac Desert is a disturbing chronical of the rampant construction of dams, aqueducts, and reservoirs in the 20th century by the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers, which competed aggressively for the right to build, build, and build more dams wherever possible and wherever remotely feasible (or not feasible). The result was agricultural miracles (e.g., the San Joaquin Valley) and desert metropoli (e.g., Phoenix and Las Vegas) of dubious sustainability, and ecological disasters (e.g., the Owens Valley and lower Colorado River) whose long-term effects are scary.

Reisner demonstrates that not all water-related government policy and legislation is effective or sustainable. You gotta assume that in the future, much of it will be dictated by short-term political expediency, special interests, junk science, and criminal intent.

Although Reisner’s depiction of this era is often disheartening, the book is so thoroughly researched, vividly historical, and wittily composed that it is a deeply satisfying read nonetheless. In fact, Cadillac Desert is the only book I ever read twice, it’s so powerful.

The Great Lakes Water Wars By Peter Annin Island Press, Washington DC, 2018

I live in the Great Lakes Basin, where freshwater resources are abundant, so I have a regional bias. In fact, the Great Lakes contain 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water. So it was with some dread that I read The Great Lakes Water Wars. The title is misleading because it is not about military wars, but the legal and political struggles around protecting the Great Lakes water resources by limiting in-basin use and out-of-basin diversion. Whereas Cadillac Desert might be a cautionary tale of wanton exploitation, The Great Lakes Water Wars is a lesson in far-sighted diplomacy.

In 2008, the U.S. Congress approved the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact (the Compact) after it was ratified by the eight Great Lakes states. The Compact governs how the states must protect the resources and prevent unwarranted diversions. For example, Waukesha, Wisconsin, lies just outside the basin, so it had to get approval from all eight state governors to divert water from Lake Michigan -- then after using the water it must treat it and return it to the lake.

I wonder if the Compact will survive when drought-, flood-, and salinity-stricken areas of the country start demanding access to “our” water resources. Will the federal government dictate a more equitable water distribution scheme? Or will the GLB states gain enough power, partly as a result of migration away from the stricken areas into the fertile GLB over the next decade or two, to resist central authority over the resources?

Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization By Steven Solomon HarperCollins, 2010

To answer such questions today, it is useful to see how they were addressed in the past. “The control of water wealth throughout history has been pivotal to the rise and fall of great powers, the achievements of civilization, the transformations of society’s vital habitats, and the quality of ordinary lives,” writes Steven Solomon in Water. This is a seminal work, fascinating and profoundly insightful. Starting with the Nile River Valley of ancient Egypt and the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia, it tells of the hydraulic innovations, wars over water resources and maritime supremacy, and the ways in which water resources have shaped the destiny of human society up to today’s “dawning age of water scarcity.”

Solomon is not a historian but a journalist who has written for the New York Times, The Economist, Business Week, etc., and has commented on NPR’s “Marketplace.”

In the final chapter, Solomon refers to “the global freshwater crisis.” Not in the future, but now. Not just in poor, under-developed regions and communities. After reading this book, you will have a hard time convincing yourself that the crisis is far away in terms of time or distance.

When the Rivers Run Dry — Water, The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century By Fred Pearce Beacon Press, Boston, 2006

Veteran environmental reporter Fred Pearce travels to more than 30 countries to examine the current (early 2000s) state of crucial water resources. One of his observations is that “modern cities could hardly be better constructed to create floods” by straightening and re-routing their waterways. He advocates for a “blue revolution” to follow the green revolution, in which “the focus is on working with the forces of nature."

"Towering concrete walls are out, and new wetlands are in….back to the days when rivers took a more tortuous path to the sea and floodwaters lost impetus and volume while meandering across floodplains and idling through wetlands and inland deltas." [page 285]

“In a highly readable style, Pearce makes the case for a new water ethics,” says the Audubon Society hopefully.

“The one-word review of Pearce’s book is, ‘terrifying,’” says Canadian climate journalist John McGrath less hopefully. “Whether he’s writing about the Indian peasant farmers who draw from poisoned wells every day, the oblivious Arizonans who run fountains in the desert, or the apocalyptic moonscape that is the Aral Sea (once a thriving fishery, now a toxic cesspool [between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan]), Pearce manages to convey the immense wreckage human activity is making of our lifeblood.”

The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water by Charles Fishman Free Press, NY, 2011

This book, thankfully, is more solution-oriented than When the Rivers Run Dry. He opens with the admonition, “We may well go from the golden age of water to the revenge of water,” but then talks about how places as diverse as Las Vegas, the Great Lakes basin, and Delhi are dealing creatively with the threat of “water poverty.”

Fishman is a veteran business journalist and author of the bestseller The Wal-Mart Effect.

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