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Water: An oasis of learning

By DAVID WALTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 23, 2000


This past month I've been reading two and now three books about water, a subject you would think was, well, dull as dirt. On the contrary. What water is, and more important, where it is, how much there is, and how much is available to human use, all turns out to be fascinating reading and more than a little alarming.

"Millions have lived without love. No one has lived without water," Marq de Villiers quotes a Turkish businessman in Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource. De Villiers, born on the dry plains of South Africa and now living in Canada, where he received the Governor General's Award for non-fiction for this book last year, takes a travel writer's approach to his subject. For 30 years as a journalist he has "collected" rivers and dams, and his book is a firsthand report of the world's water supply and of a crisis that is already evolving in many parts of the world.

Philip Ball's Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water takes a more encyclopedic approach (starting with the Big Bang and the molecular structure of water), but both writers end up talking about the same subject: supply and demand. Of the 1.4-billion cubic kilometers of water on earth, 97 percent is seawater, too salty for drinking or agriculture. Two-thirds of the remaining freshwater is locked in polar ice and glaciers. Half of what's left is already being appropriated and used.

"The trouble with water," says de Villiers, "is they're not making any more of it. . . . The human population is burgeoning, but water demand is increasing twice as fast."

Every attempt to control, regulate, conserve water seems to lead to a greater evil. Dams destroy an ecosystem and eventually fill up with silt. Irrigation, unless regularly flushed by rain and flooding, leaves dissolved salt in the soil, eventually killing off agriculture entirely. De Villiers travels to the Aral Sea in the former Soviet Union, what used to be the world's fourth largest sea, now shrunken and poisonous, "the quiet Chernobyl," and probably the greatest man-caused ecological catastrophe ever. He visits the world's water sources -- the Nile, Rhine, Danube, Tigris-Euphrates, Hoover Dam, the Golan Heights.

Would you be surprised to learn that two-thirds of the water Israel uses originates in the Golan Heights, south Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territory it controls through military conquest? Since the mid-1990s, Israel has been drawing 15 percent more a year from underground water than can be replenished. Jordan is doing even worse, drawing 20 percent more water than it receives.

De Villiers quotes Ismail Serageldin of the World Bank: "The wars of the twenty-first century will be fought over water."

This discomforting thought is compounded by the state of the world's aquifers, basins of underground water, some of them huge and many thousands of years old -- whose welfare I, probably with most people, never gave much thought to before. Out of sight, out of mind. But that's the problem: Groundwater everywhere is being overused, depleted, poisoned. The huge Ogallala Aquifer beneath the plains states, stretching from South Dakota to Texas and the size and volume of one of the Great Lakes, is being depleted by as many acre-feet of water a year as flow in the Columbia River.

De Villiers is especially contemptuous of water policies in the southwestern United States ("the irrigation of what are, essentially, deserts") and especially in California ("the planet's most expensive welfare system") and even more of Colonel Gadhafi's $32-billion plan to pipeline water from the Nubian sandstone aquifer that underlies the Sahara Desert to irrigate Libya's coastal cities -- right now the largest civil engineering project on the planet.

At about this point in de Villiers' book I came across Craig Childs' The Secret Knowledge of Water: Discovering the Essence of the American Desert, which describes tracking down and mapping water holes, springs, trapped basins and lakes of water in the desert. Childs' book is more specialized, quirky at times, but he captures the romance of water -- its allure and ephemeral scent. His is a perfect summertime book, the proverbial long drink of water, and a book I think many different readers would enjoy.

All three of these book about water, in fact, are well written, timely and enlightening. The crucial role of water in our lives and the number of public-policy issues its uses raise are things of which every responsible citizen should be aware.

In this month's Harper's, Jacques Leslie offers "Running Dry," an excellent 16-page synopsis of the current state of the world's water supply and what to expect in the years ahead. According to the contributors' notes, Leslie is working on a book. About water, of course.

David Walton is a freelance writer who lives in Pittsburg.

LIFE'S MATRIX: A Biography of Water

By Philip Ball

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25

THE SECRET KNOWLEDGE OF WATER: Discovering the Essence of the American Desert

By Craig Childs

Sasquatch Books, $23.95

WATER: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource

By Marq de Villiers

Houghton Mifflin, $25

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