Thursday, August 20, 2009

Book Review: When the Rivers Run Dry by Fred Pearce

Pearce, Fred. When the Rivers Run Dry: Water—The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-first Century. Boston: Beacon, 2006.

Mankind’s attempts to harness rivers have had unintended consequences. Schemes to make land more productive have created deserts. Crops on drained land have produced less food and value than the swamps they displaced. Rivers hemmed in to prevent flooding have flooded more frequently and worse than before.

Pearce isn’t against technology. He sometimes expresses admiration for the dams, canals and other engineering feats about which he writes. However, he’s not impressed when this technology deprives people of the water and wealth it was intended to provide.

Water and wealth is a connection Pearce often makes. For all the lip service paid to the social benefits of grand water schemes, the water tends to go where the money is.

Overall, the world has become more water poor. The poorest have generally lost the most.

In spite of the history, Peace sees hope in the potential of technology that works with the water cycle instead of against it. It is already happening on a small scale where ancient where people are reviving ancient methods of capturing rainwater. Indian farmers are adapting dessert containers for use as a cheap, and more efficient, drip irrigation pipe. On the large scale, river engineers are cutting levees, restoring wetlands and allow river to return to curvy courses. In agriculture, the biggest user and waster of water in much of the world, there is a move to crops that are more appropriate to the locally available rainfall and less dependent on irrigation. Even in Los Angeles, a city known for the lengths it has gone to in order to quench its great thirst in a dry land, activist are seeking to create a more porous city that captures and uses the water that falls there naturally.

To illustrate his points, Pearce travels the world to see the disastrous results of bad water management, the extreme example being the disappearing Aral Sea. He also points out what works, like a restored qanat in Iraq.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in Water by Marq de Villiers.

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