Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Confronting Future Water Shortages at the Source

David Lewis Feldman, Water

We 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.

Even 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 exception.

Professor 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.

In 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 supply.

Drinkable 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 millennia.

This 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.

Private 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.

Nearly 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 than practical.

In 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.

This 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.

Earth’s 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.

Britain’s 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.

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