By Adam Aston
The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water
By Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke
New Press — 278pp — $25.95
Drought, Flood, Folly, and the Politics of Thirst
By Diane Raines Ward
Riverhead Books — 280pp — $24.95
Summer, for most of us, means water-soaked fun at a pool, lakeside, or beach. But as we nonchalantly paddle about, the world’s water supply is imperiled. Consider some of this year’s headlines: Unprecedented wildfires in Arizona fueled by moisture-starved brush. Hydropower shortages in the Pacific Northwest. Creeping desertification of farmland in the Midwest, Central Africa, and East Asia. The situation is grim and getting worse.
It’s a crisis that goes largely unacknowledged. The reason, argue two recent books, is that the developed world’s technical mastery over water has led to a false sense of security. In Blue Gold, activists Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke offer an angry and persuasive account of how this has damaged the environment and how the privatization of once-public water resources threatens to exacerbate the problem. In Water Wars, conservationist Diane Raines Ward provides a less polemical, more engaging story of “drought, flood, and folly” across the planet.
Both books marshal abundant data to support their conclusions. Global consumption of water is doubling every 20 years, twice the rate of population growth, observe Barlow and Clarke. Worse, toxins from cities, factories, and farms are spoiling freshwater supplies: More than half the world’s rivers are polluted. Meanwhile, as Ward details, lowlands around the world are engaged in a losing fight against rising sea levels.
Sometimes, the books’ flow of statistics can be numbing. For example, Blue Gold notes that the earth has 330 million cubic miles of water, but just 8,000 cubic miles available as circulating freshwater. Is that a lot or a little?
Yet the authors more than compensate for such lapses, while tackling the crisis from different angles. Blue Gold describes the moneyed interests plunging into the water business. It tells how Perrier, Evian, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo–and particularly the French giants Vivendi and Suez–are buying up rights to mine free public aquifers, then bottling and selling their products around the world. Blue Gold‘s central question: Is access to water a fundamental right, or is water a salable good? If it’s a right, then countries have a duty to distribute water to their citizens. But if considered a good, water gets caught up in the calculus of profit maximization.
Clearly, the authors are in the rights camp, holding that local communities should set water policy. But they make a strong case that the water-as-commodity view is winning. A spate of rulings by the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank treat water as an economic good. And many poor countries, unable to afford the capital costs, have invited private companies to run their water systems, sometimes ceding control to foreign interests. “Maximizing profit is the prime goal, not ensuring sustainability or equal access to water,” write Barlow and Clarke.
Their stance is well-served by a description of U.S. engineering giant Bechtel Group Inc.’s disastrous 1998 investment in the water system of Cochabamba, Bolivia. To recoup its spending on infrastructure, Bechtel raised water fees so high that the poor could not afford them. The resulting riots led to the ejection of Bechtel and the return of the assets to public management. “Cochabamba” has since become a rallying cry for activists opposing similar privatizations elsewhere.
Water Wars, despite its action-movie title, doesn’t draw such sharp lines between good and bad. Ward’s intent is to describe mankind’s complex relationship with water. She is fascinated by such megaprojects as Holland’s $8 billion system of storm-surge gates that can seal off Rotterdam harbor from North Sea storms. Visiting the ruins of a 5,000-year-old dam in the Egyptian desert, she reflects that the urge to find, dam, and channel water is one of the earliest spurs to technological advancement.
Yet Ward is saddened by our destructive treatment of water. Evaluating megascale projects, she finds that many costs come with the benefits. Dams, for example, are built to irrigate land for farming. But poorly designed dams let sediment accumulate behind them, starving downstream farms of nutrients.
Indeed, many of the 20th century’s greatest victories are double-edged when it comes to water. Ward talks to countless people caught up in the contradictions. One is Jacobus Van Dixhoorn, director of the Netherlands’ water-control bureau, who lives on a farm below sea level. He explains how the centuries-old Dutch obsession with holding back the sea has resulted in some of the world’s most uneconomic farmland, maintained only by a massive network of dikes and pumps. Like much of Ward’s book, the tale is at once compelling and sad.
Both books suffer from lack of illustrations. They’re packed with explanations of water-control structures and the physical features of the hydrosphere–but rely on words alone to tell how over-irrigated land can turn snow-white with deadly salt, or where the shrinking Ogllala Aquifer in the Western U.S. lies.
Still, the words alone are plenty to inspire and alarm. Blue Gold will make you want to waste less water, while Water Wars may induce you to visit the Hoover Dam. Together, they make the point that the lifeblood of planet earth can’t be taken for granted.
Aston is Industries editor