Review: Whose Water Is It?–The Unquenchable Thirst of a Water-Hungry World

5 Star, Complexity & Catastrophe, Environment (Problems), Environment (Solutions), Intelligence (Public), True Cost & Toxicity, Values, Ethics, Sustainable Evolution, Water, Energy, Oil, Scarcity
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5.0 out of 5 stars Core selection, not a substitute for the master works

August 28, 2010

Bernadette McDonald and Douglas Jehl (editors)

Published by the National Geographic in 2003, this is an edited work with several but not all of the greats brought together. The short pieces are a fine collage for undergraduate reading and discussion but the book does not make the jump to graduate-level thinking. I place it behind Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource published in 2001 and Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water, while also recommending The Atlas of Water, Second Edition: Mapping the World’s Most Critical Resource and Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water as well as Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit. I have written summary reviews on all of them.

The book sets out to address (in a general but most informed way) the areas of water ownership, water scarcity, water conflict, and water prospects. Below I identify the author of the individual section, and then highlights that I retained from that section.

Paul Simon
+ US has over 100 water disputes going on with Canada
+ In 2003 Amman Jordan was so stressed that the tap could only be turned once a week

Douglas Jehl
+ More and more people, less and less water
+ “Fossil Water” has been consumed the way fossil oil has been consumed
+ Attitudes and laws are the barriers to reform, not Earth or technology

Robert Glennon
+ Federal regulations (when they exist) have unintended negative effects
+ Exported water does not recycle into its home water basis
+ Eastern laws require sharing, Western laws reward first-use which also means most used up
+ Law make waste of water profitable
+ Groundwater use is largely unregulated and hence unprotected
+ “Disappeared” groundwater is an environmental catastrophe TODAY, witness Boston, Tampa
+ Market systems do not properly internalize environmental costs
+ Author appears to favor commoditization of water rather than water as a human right

QUOTE (10) To prevent the tragedy of the commons, we must break the cycle of unrestricted access to the common-pool resource (groundwater).

Maude Barlow: see my reviews of her two books and also Blue Gold: World Water Wars

Marq de Villiers: see my review of his book cited above. All my reviews are more easily found at Phi Beta Iota the Public Intelligence Blog, where I also have reviews sorted in 98 categories including water for ease of rapid topical exploitation.

Margaret Catley-Carlson
+ Water scarcity and water pollution connect directly with poverty and disease
+ Political borders hamper responsible water management. See my review of The Health of Nations: Society and Law beyond the State, Web of Deceit: The History of Western Complicity in Iraq, from Churchill to Kennedy to George W. Bush, and Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, among others. We are long over-due for a restoration of tribal boundaries and a rejection of the bulk of Western impositions on the South.
+ Hybrid solutions seem to be working. THIS IS IMPORTANT. See High Noon 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them for a similar conclusion.

Lester Brown: see my most recent review of  State of the World 2010: Transforming Cultures: From Consumerism to Sustainability
+ Water scarcity leads to food scarcity
+ Long-term perspective are absent from decision-making (I and Ben Gilad would also tell you that “intelligence” is lacking as well–nearly every major decision is uninformed and based on political, ideological, or financial interests, not on reality.

Hans Schreier
+ Mountains are the water towers of humanity
+ Mountain role in water is poorly researched and poorly understood
+ Global dynamics of the hydrocycle across regions is not understood
+ Education is key

QUOTE (94): Agriculture is not only the most water-demanding industry, but is also emerging as the largest contributor of non-point source pollution.” (e.g. soil acidification, nutrient deficiencies, water pollution, and concentrated phospherous)

Aaron Wolf
+ World is running out of “easy” water
+ Political lines make agreement very difficult
+ International law is “poorly developed, contradictory, and unenforceable”
+ Research does show that cooperation is the norm rather than conflict
+ Time lags between negotiation, agreement, and implementation are very costly
+ Strength of the institutions dealing with the water issue is the PRIMARY deterrent of conflict
+ Unilateral actions (e.g. building a dam) lead to conflict
+ Hybrid regional arrangments do work–this suggests to me that UN water agencies, once they are completely freed of corporate control, should spend more time on hybrid capacity-building
+ 4 existing water basins under stress will be joined by 17 more, impacting on 51 nations. 8 of those basins are in Africa, 6 in Asia.

QUOTE (119): Few of them [the basins] are on the radar screens of water and security analysts.”

Mike Dombeck
+ Forests and watersheds are the cleansers of water
+ Clearing forests also destroys land
+ Impact on fish has not been well understood.
+ We understand watersheds better now, but science has not been applied in remediation of past damages done

QUOTE (132): The symptoms are unmistakable. The collective effect of dams, water diversions, pollution, habitat destruction, and the introduction of nonnative species has led to the imperiled status of many fish and other aquatic species. [on the order of 35 to 65%]

David Hayes
+ City-farm conflicts coming to a head
+ History of first use in West has complicated sharing
+ Cadillac desert construction (e.g. Las Vegas) has made it much worse much faster

QUOTE (145-146): Fundamental changes in demographics, culture, and values are coming to the fore at the same time that the traditional tools for brokering conflicting water needs are on the wane.

Bernadette McDonald and Doughlas Jehl
+ Solutions include shift in attitude, acknowledging entire ecological context, and recognizing the importance of the hydrological cycle
+ Solutions include drip irrigation, re-used water (gray water), desalination, pricing, end of water subsidies, and understanding the true cost of water

Observation: nowhere in this book did I see suggestions that we should drastically cut back on animal food sources. See Diet for a Small Planet for an example of the literature on that point.

David Schindler
+ Praries depend on mountains for snowmelt in spring, glacier melt in summer, and groundwater the rest of the time
+ Drought ALTERS the hydrological cycle and other landscapes
+ Little has been done by governments to protect fresh water

QUOTE (168): Climatological history suggests that we are long overdue for a major drought, like those that lasted a decade or longer in centuries past.

David Suzuki and AManda McConnell
+ We have an absolute need for air, water, soil, energy, and biodiversity
+ Shift in thinking to remediate, and avoid future negatives, should be the priority
+ Best path beyond efficiency demand productivity and matching of water means to human ends
+ Government at every level has been negligent

Peter Gleick
+ 6 suggestions–buy the book for the best of this “top gun” water expert’s thinking

QUOTE (187): The greatest water problems facing the world today are not the result of inadequate infrastructure, but inefficient water use, inappropriate allocations, water pollution, and ecologicial destruction.

David Jehl
+ Desalination could be a panacea (but no mention of its toxic side effects
+ “New” gray water will help (I am reminded of watering crops with Gatorade in the DVD Idiocracy)

Bernadette McDonald
+ Water has an economic value (this scares me–see E.O. Wilson’s thoughts in The Future of Life
+ Sanitation is a vital starting point, agricultural dynamic is next
+ Urgent needs for capital investment world-wide
+ Importance of good (uncorrupt?) governance cannot be over-stated
+ HYBRIDS emerging that work.

QUOTE (217): One of the more difficult goals [is] to determine the true value of water, its economic, social, environmental, and cultural value.

My concluding thought: among all the books I have read and reviewed on water, this is the one in which the lack of inter-disciplinary analytics is most visibly felt (by me, anyway). See the Strategic Analytic Model of the Earth Intelligence Network (links active at Phi Beta Iota) and especially the Holistic Analysis Circle for the ten threats and twelve polices of which Water is the twelfth.   Corruption–lack of integrity–is the common challenge.

PS: I cannot stand Amazon’s limitations (e.g. ten links) or its arbitrary censorship of images, a primary reason why I created Phi Beta Iota. At Phi Beta Iota ALL links are active and lead either to the Amazon pages or to my own review pages for the book, each of which in turn always leads back to the respective Amazon pages.

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