Tuesday, May 12, 2009

When the Rivers Run Dry

As I've mentioned before, I have read a lot about water issues. Naturally, I have come to a point where many books, especially those without a narrow focus, don't provide much new information. I was pleasantly surprised, however, by Fred Pearce's When the Rivers Run Dry: Water -- The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century. By presenting dozens of new (to me) case studies, this book shows just how pervasive water issues are. Despite the river-centric title and theme (each of the book's ten sections begins with "When the rivers run dry..." followed by "...the crops fail", "...engineers pour concrete", "...men go to war", and so on), Pearce recognizes that water is a system and that rivers are only part of the picture. He does not give short shrift to aquifers, rainwater, desalination, and other topics. My only complaint is that there should have been many more maps (those included are excellent).

Pearce describes the failures of a U.N. program to drill wells for "safe" water to replace disease-carrying river water in India and Bangladesh. It turns out that the groundwater is often polluted with poisonous levels of fluoride and arsenic (ironically, in one town the only healthy people were those of a lower caste who were not allowed to drink from the new wells). There is a sickening story about farmers using polluted water to grow crops. They try not to touch the water because it burns their skin, and yet they use it to grow the vegetables they eat. Pearce even adds depth to some familiar tales such as the tragedy of the disappearing Aral Sea.

It's hard to choose one definitive book about worldwide water issues, but When the Rivers Run Dry is a good candidate. An Americentric reader may be disappointed (for that person, I'd recommend Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert), but anyone interested in global examples of water-related troubles should thoroughly enjoy this book.

Current tally: 36 books finished, 31 books acquired

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