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Science, People & Politics

Science, People and Politics, Volume 1, 1.3.06.

The Story of Earth's Troubled Water Spots

by Helen Gavaghan

When the Rivers run Dry: What happens when our water runs out?
By Fred Pearce, Transworld Publishers and Eden Project Books (2006), London.
ISBN: 1903919576/9781903919576

Good intentions go oft awry; while ambition, lack of foresight or diligence, outmoded schemes, political change, or simply a lack of knowledge lay traps for peoples, states and continents. Fred Pearce charts these obstacles to our future and lays out the grand tragedy that may yet befall us all as we diminish Earth's water resources. His thesis: if we separate viable social groups, agriculture and industry from sustainable water supplies we have a problem.

Only this time it cannot be ascribed solely to that great environmental bogey -climate change. Indeed the one chapter Pearce dedicates in this book to the topic makes clear that whilst climate change is unarguably a problem there is still debate about who will be the hydrological winners and losers.

In the meantime, and without climate change, Earth's aquifers, fossil water, replenishable stocks, wetlands and rivers are already in trouble. As anecdotes propel us on a travelogue of the world's troubled water spots we learn that it is not even venality or unbridled greed that will be our undoing. Rather it is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Changes in commerce, political masters, agricultural practice, industry, well intentioned projects mismanaged and growing centres of population in places with insufficient water to supply them all create the problem. Climate change may make matters worse, but it is not the sole nor always the main cause of trouble.

Take the inhabitants of villages in central India poisoned by over fluorodated water in wells planned and paid for by aid agencies and agencies of the UN. There is one adult today reports Pearce who drank the water as a child and who walks today with knock-kneed bones. Teenagers have been affected too. Or those in Bangladesh where Arsenic levels are 50 times greater than those recommended by the World Health Organisation. Some of those who have drunk that water for twenty years have developed cancer.

Yet the intention was good. What honest error, innocent oversight or lazy mismanagement underlies this tragedy? Pearce does not say, and we will have to wait for the historians' remorseless dissections of records - and their omissions - for deep insight. Their task will not be easy. Into the scales of judgment they will need to pour the situation before the tragedy. Millions of people in the 1960s and 70s, reports Pearce, drank sewage-polluted water that spread cholera, typhoid and diarrhoea. When that happened to the River Chicago at the turn of the nineteenth century the City built itself a canal that siphoned water from Lake Michigan to sweep away untreated human wastage (and laid the seeds for an international political row 100 years later). In Central India that option did not exist. Instead the wells were dug to tap unpolluted natural sources. The tragedy was that Nature not Man had polluted those sources and, reports Pearce, no-one thought to test those sources. One hopes that the funding agencies insist now on rigorous, wide ranging environmental assessment impact studies. For methodology they could do worse than to look to the Antarctic for a gold standard of practice intended to guard against unintended environmental consequences.

Throughout the book, stories of the interconnectedness of things are a cry to planners to impose such studies and a reminder that water shapes our history as our history shapes our water. Take the Yellow River in China, a place where war and man-made disaster killed nearly one million in 1938-1939 and where, as Pearce reports, one Chinese word - zhi - means both to regulate water and to rule.

"China has put a giant bureaucracy, the Yellow River Conservancy, in charge of the river," writes Pearce. "I travelled the river with its staff, constantly struck by how their comments jumped from civil-service reticence to open candour." The story of the River that Pearce uncovered is one of mismanagement in the upper reaches with consequences lower down. Though that mismanagement slows the flow rate, the silt that consequentially accumulates is causing fears that there will be floods as destructive to the inhabitants of its flood plains as those when the river was healthy.

Inevitably the book comprises stories of disaster. Sometimes politics and cultural antipathy make a bad situation worse as where the Gaza strip and Israel meet. The combatants on each side (and one must remember not all from each group are combatants) are drawing on the vast reserve of water under the Negev. I first learned of and wrote about this valuable resource more than twenty years ago during a trip that took me on buses deep into the desert.

One year ago, wanting for my own research to see the Suez Canal and thinking that now would be a good time to update my old feature, I viewed this same land from a Prominence in Jordan. I had taken advantage of a cheap trip to the Sinai thinking I could pay for my passage by writing an updated feature about the region's water issues. In the end I did not, and Pearce now has done the job for me. As I read his account all I could think was that when I had stayed in a tourist hotel in the Sinai - a mere hop skip and a jump from this troubled border - I had luxuriated in baths and swimming pools. At the time my thought was that the investment in tourism at the top of the Red Sea where the Sinai, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia meet was worthwhile if it provided a common economic goal and a buffer against extremist terrorist elements of the region's faiths, but I had not got as far as thinking how this international political and economic need balanced against the local need for water.

Before receiving my review copy I had not thought of Pearce as a travel writer, but having been introduced by David Bellamy's cover line to the idea, I can say that this book belongs in part in that category. Pearce's style flits from first to third person narrative and so keeps the reader alert. He attains lyricism in parts. With subtle simile and wry observation he makes a disturbing subject readable. As he tours the globe his geographer's background is apparent in his awareness of the interplay of land, inhabitants, resources and political overlay. I do not buy into all his work implies of politics, but that does not matter. He writes as someone who cares about the world's shared past and future and reminds the reader again that without clean, well managed water we die. The book has substance and as an added bonus is speckled with the kind of "did-you-know" facts that one might hear during a local pub quiz night. For example, how much water does it take to live?

Pearce writes:"I reckon that as a typical meat-eating, beer-swilling, milk-guzzling Westerner, I consume in this way as much as a hundred times my own weight in water every day."

If you want to know how he comes to this conclusion you will have to buy the book. It is a good read and informative.


Readers interested in this review may find the article about Middle East Water by Arie Issar of interest (www.gavaghancommunications.com/sppmiddleeastwater.html). Please return to the contents page and access the article from there. Based on his expertise Issar considers that the tourism of the Red Sea Coast from the Sinai through to Saudi Arabia is sustainable.

Fred's son, Joe, then a student at the University of Leeds, died of rare natural causes during the writing of this book.
The book is dedicated to Joe.


The editor for this article is Martin Redfern, a BBC producer and author of The Earth: A very short introduction. Published by Oxford University Press, 2002.

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