Wednesday, February 15, 2012

BC2012: The Big Thirst by Charles Fishman

Regular visitors know that one of my favorite reading topics is water. Most of the books I've read have been about water scarcity and/or activism (the others have been largely historical). The Big Thirst is a different kind of water book. Subtitled "The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water", this book is primarily about our relationship to water. I cannot recall the last time I read a book about water that had such little overlap with my previous knowledge.

The story begins with chemistry and geology, noting the uniqueness of many of water's properties. Fishman writes about a "fourth form" of water bound within rock deep in the earth's crust (e.g., serpentinite). This is the first of many surprising new concepts I discovered in The Big Thirst. Another is Ultra Pure Water (UPW), which is used in the production of microchips. This water is so pure that it is toxic to drink in large quantities -- drinking it would leach the nutrients out of one's body (besides, it reputedly tastes bitter). Even the obligatory chapter about Las Vegas is different from any I've read elsewhere. Instead of scolding the city for waste in a dry environment, Fishman focuses on how the city and its casinos have pioneered several tactics and technologies to reduce water consumption.

The chapter about India was a real eye-opener. India's water problems are not about scarcity, but about distribution and sanitation. Only one of the 35 largest cities in India has a 24-7 water supply, something most Americans take for granted. Many cities had 24-7 water when the British were in control, but their systems have deteriorated due to neglect and disinterest. Consequently, the acquisition of water defines the lives of many Indians, particularly women. Even middle and upper class Indians have to install storage tanks and pumps in their homes to collect tap water during the few hours a day that it is provided. It's easy to imagine water distribution issues in Third World nations, but it is hard to believe that a country with such resources as India has those problems.

Fishman's book is well-written and utterly fascinating. Unlike many books by water activists, The Big Thirst offers a generally positive outlook on the world's water issues -- yes, there are many challenges, but they are not insurmountable. I'd rank it among the top five books I've read about the subject.

1 comment:

Charles Fishman said...

David Johnsen,

Thanks for finding "The Big Thirst," and I appreciate the fact that as widely read as you are, you still got something fresh from "The Big Thirst."

That was the point: Don't write the same water book that has been written. And I was determined that "The Big Thirst" would have some fun.

I tweeted your post (@cfishman).

Anyone who's curious can read excerpts online for free, at:

And the book is just out in paperback this week with a new chapter that's not in the hardcover.


Charles Fishman