David Lewis Feldman, Water
have grown accustomed to space-based photographs of Planet Earth that
glimmer blue with abundant surface water. But as UC Irvine professor
David Lewis Feldman reminds us, most of that water is unfit for human
consumption. Though we’re not in immediate risk of running out of clean,
drinkable water, not everybody has equal access to the chemical that
comprises three-quarters of the human body.
if you dismiss global climate change, best evidence indicates that our
world will face increasing struggles over potable water access in coming
years. Concentrating populations, industrial and agricultural runoff,
and the simple need to drink and bathe will tax Earth’s freshwater
supplies, and technology may not keep up. According to Feldman,
throughout history, this has been the rule of water access, not the
Feldman compiles the live issues defining the problems which currently
define water conflicts, and others which will define the future. He also
also compiles the counterclaims, giving readers a comprehensive
overview of the entire debate, and the tools to make informed decisions.
If we hope to participate in this debate, which will define much of the
21st century, Feldman’s book puts necessary tools in our hands.
the past, human populations developed around abundant surface
freshwater. Cities like London, New York, and Tokyo arose because the
rivers moving through the territory constantly replenished the water
supply. But in the 20th century, technology allowed such mass movement
of water that cities arose in areas that could not support them
naturally, or existing cities exceeded Nature’s ability to replenish the
water problems have compounded in the last century with new water uses.
Feldman spends many pages talking about industrial water uses: it
requires hundreds of gallons of water, say, to refine one barrel of oil.
More interesting to me as a Plains dweller, though, is the rise of
irrigation agriculture. Land once reserved for climate-specific crops is
now watered from deep-rock aquifers which won’t get replenished for
highlights one of the major themes which runs through Feldman’s
explanation: we lack a reliable, enforceable definition of fair use.
Conflicting values, border tensions, and unequal power distributions
make peaceful resolutions of water conflicts difficult (though Feldman
rejects the word “impossible). Feldman describes conflicts in regions
like South Asia and East Africa which embody the conflicts which will
only become more common soon.
water utilities came under intense fire in the 1990’s when forced
privatization priced rural peasants and urban poor out of the water
South American water market. Yet Feldman reminds us that much of Europe
has highly regarded private water utilities. And public utilities are
hardly better, often cash-strapped and unable to plan for population
expansion, needed upgrades, or even routine maintenance.
one-fifth of Earth’s clean, drinkable surface water exists in Canada
and Siberia—areas manifestly unfit for large-scale habitation. But any
attempts to move that water to current population centers will inflict
massive energy costs, mostly in fossil fuels, likely amplifying climate
change risks. We can say the same about proposed solutions like
wastewater reclamation and desalination, which remain more idealistic
sum, 21st century water issues resist pat solutions and TV-friendly
sound bites. We are entering a time when potable water access will
define global geopolitical hotspots, economic development, and
environmental peril. Feldman carefully lays out what real risks we
likely face, exploring both sides of each issue, giving us the tools we
need to understand and participate in this complex but necessary debate.
book does not make light reading. Professor Feldman’s prose brims with
data, requiring constant high attention, and suffers from complex
Yoda-like academese that means most readers will need to hit key
paragraphs two or three times before we savvy the entire point. Some
people will find this writing intimidating. But anybody who gives up for
that reason is only stealing from themselves.
resource debates deserve this kind of sober, informed treatment. We who
drink water must know what resource challenges our shared future holds,
and how our individual choices influence humanity. Professor Feldman’s
information-dense, thoroughly sourced book permits us to see the
indirect effects of our choices, and plan for future generations.
Polity Books is pushing a series on upcoming resource debates, of which
this is only one volume. Others include Food, Oil, Timber, and Coltan.
If this book represents the entire series, we finally have the tools
many socially conscious people have sought to understand debates that
will shape our globe in coming years.