Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource

by Marq de Villiers
ISBN: 0771026412

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A Review of: Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource
by John Ayre

Considering how crucial water is to life, it's surprising how few books on water exist even today for the non-specialist. One celebrated study, Marc Reisner's The Cadillac Desert has gone through several editions but the focus there is on the water management and depredations in the American southwest. Marq de Villiers's Water which first came out in 1999, had a much broader perspective. It carefully reviewed some major problems the world over, both technical and political, in the seemingly simple task of making clean water reliably come out of taps. It was an impressively detailed and thought-out book and won the Governor General's Award for non-fiction. Inevitably its success rather begged for an update and de Villiers has obliged with a newly revised and expanded edition.
While the revision covers much the same territory as the first edition, there has been a slight darkening of tone. Although the first edition was a book full of stories of gross mismanagement and pollution, de Villiers did at least indulge himself at the start with an innocent Garden of Eden image. A South African transplanted to Canada, de Villiers can never forget his grandfather's dry farm on the edge of a desert. At his own recreational farm in central Ontario, de Villiers has by contrast the luxury of a small spring behind his barn where the water, seemingly inexhaustible and pure, makes happy gurgling sounds. In the first edition, he even admitted that at first he loved to sit near the spring and just experience its plenitude. In the new edition he snatches this image away as if it were a bit too clever or sentimental. In virtually any other place in the world, after all, there would be farmers upstream diverting water or polluting it.
Certainly there is no shortage of unhappy stories he can relate. De Villiers provides a parade of international water disasters and there are enough recent ones. The list in the new edition is almost entirely different from that in his first book. One especially depressing prediction from the United Nations suggests that in just eleven years, 40% of the world's population will suffer major difficulties in obtaining necessary water. Bankok is pumping so much ground water out from beneath the city that like Mexico City, it is slowly sinking in on itself. By 2050 Bangkok will be below sea level. There are plenty of nightmare pollution stories in Water as well, like the tons of mine tailings which spilled into a tributary of the Danube ruining the whole riverway both for the fish and the people living along it.
Using a chapter-by-chapter case study approach, de Villers reviews some major problems in the international arena: The destruction of the Aral Sea, attempts in various countries to pump out huge repositories of ground water, the political and technical confusions of managing the massive Tigris-Euphrates and Nile river systems, and the smaller but no less thorny questions of water supply in Israel and Palestine. The latter in particular is a microcosm of what may happen everywhere in water-scarce areas where water could become part of military strategy. Israeli determination, for instance, to hold the Golan Heights is now at least one half of a story of securing water supply.
One of the strengths of Water is de Villiers' ability to remain rational and collected even as he outlines many frightening scenarios. He appears to expect eventual solutions to both pollution and supply problems. Political will is crucial, however, and sometimes inspired action does occur. The Rhine River reached such a crisis level after a major toxic spill that the Germans finally forced themselves to clean it up. The destroyed riverway was clean enough to sustain new fish stocks in just four years.
Throughout Water de Villiers suggests numerous ways of attacking the other vexing problem of supply-many of them obvious, if painful. If a region is furiously pumping out aquifers for irrigation water, as had been happening for decades with the enormous Ogallala aquifer of southcentral United States, then it's obviously necessary just to halt the pumping by decommissioning land. De Villiers notes: "Texas has already decommissioned nearly a million hectares, one-third of its total irrigable land, and west Texas is almost in panic mode...."
Less easy to resolve are the predicaments of large and rapidly expanding desert cities like greater Phoenix (3 million people) and Las Vegas (1.5 million). Thousand-mile pipelines or canals won't solve the demand problem if there is no easy supply at the other end. Even when a city virtually sits on an aquifer like Tampa, there can be nightmarish complications. When Tampa pumped out water from an aquifer close to the sea, salt water invaded the aquifer and the city had to plan massive and very expensive desalination and reservoir projects to provide fresh water for its growing population.
De Villiers twice returns to the image of his old Afrikaaner grandfather coaxing water out of the earth with a rickety windmill and then treating it as a precious-as-gold commodity to water his crops. He even hand-watered his strawberry patch. He was successful for decades but when a ranching company took the farm over after he passed away, the land was destroyed and abandoned in just two decades. There is a clear message in this concerning attitude. Care and vigilance on the individual level will translate into solutions to larger scale problems. Yet if the right values aren't taught and encouraged at the grass roots level, the opposite prediction of catastrophe is also true.

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