de Villiers, Marq. Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource. 1999. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
Marq de Villiers serves as a guide on a tour of water problems, conflicts and occasional solutions around the world. Though he is not an alarmist, his book seems to indicate that the problems have so far greatly outpaced the solutions.
There are several aspects of water problems and conflicts that de Villiers considers: natural, technological and political. In each area, he provides specific examples of water in or nearing crisis.
The natural distribution of fresh water in the world is uneven. That may be the fundamental aspect of water problems: even where it’s seemingly abundant, it doesn’t occur where and when people want it to make use of it. In parts of the world, this is a dire situation.
The technological solutions people have applied to correct this distribution have resulted in some amazing works of engineering since early in human history. It has also had many unintended consequences. Irrigation that made marginal land productive has made some of that land useless, even desert, through increased salinity. Dams, drainage and transfers have created ill effects in regional climates. Water mining, pollution and other human activity are also threatening the quantity and quality of water even in developed nations. There is hope in the technological area in that much of this harm may be reversible and the human ingenuity that created these technologies might also create sustainable solutions to our water needs.
Political considerations are very important to water issues, particularly when considering the possibility of conflict, even outright war, because of water scarcity. The Middle East and North Africa come to mind as hot spots where water is a critical issue; de Villiers enlightens both the current situation and history of these regions. Though mistrust runs deep between the nations in this region, even seemingly friendly ones, there is hope for solutions to their water problems. North America has its water problems to, and the problems on the Colorado River are surprisingly similar to those on the Nile. The differences in water availability in the United States, Mexico and Canada also makes for interesting relations between these close and usually friendly neighbors. China may present the largest political problems related to water and it’s food production and population that threatens to push it into crisis.
The book closes with four general strategies for dealing with the world’s water problems. First, get more water by either bringing it in from elsewhere or making it (i.e. desalination). Next is conservation and pricing to reduce demand and encourage using water in the most valuable ways. Third is population control; de Villiers seems relieved that world populations have been growing more slowly without major intervention. Finally, you can steal water from others. Since 40 percent people worldwide live in watersheds that cross national boundaries, it becomes a complicated matter of who has what right to the water and this is a potential source of water conflict, though not insurmountable.