A Compelling Description of Water Resources and Global Water Policies

Published April 4, 2013

Review of The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water, by Charles Fishman (Free Press, 2012), 416 pages, ISBN- 978-1439102084

Charles Fishman, longtime newspaper reporter and author of the bestselling book The Wal-Mart Effect, has published an excellent new book about the water resources we so frequently take for granted. Fishman traveled the world gathering stories and technical details about how water is managed, developed, delivered, used, and misused, putting all this information together in a compelling manner in The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water.

Great Information, Excellent Writing
Fishman does more than merely spell out the facts, challenges, and opportunities presented by water resources, he does so with the talent of an expert writer who can vividly bring to life topics that might seem mundane if presented by a less skillful writer.

I heartily recommend The Big Thirst to Environment & Climate News readers who want a world tour of water problems with excellent profiles of the people either impacted, involved, or in control.

One must take some of Fishman’s assertions with caution, however: he believes humans are creating a global warming crisis and he weaves those beliefs into his narrative, but separating his facts from his opinions is fairly easy. Ultimately, he is optimistic about our ability to supply adequate quantities of water to the world’s population.

Fishman adores numbers and statistics and presents them liberally, but he occasionally gets some incorrect, such as his statement that more than 100 billion people have lived over the past 50,000 years. The commonly accepted number is less than half that amount.

He frequently portrays water in poetic imagery, which is not at all unjustified. Fishman describes water as “tirelessly resilient, … participating in a mind-bending array of physical, chemical, biochemical, geological and human created process every minute of a day.”

More People Using Less Water
Fishman accurately recounts progress in the United States in using water much more judiciously than in years past. Americans use less water today than we did in 1980, not just in per-capita terms but also in absolute terms, he explains. He notes water use in the United States peaked in 1980 at 440 billion gallons per day. Now, 25 years later, we are using less than 410 billion gallons a day even though our population increased by 70 million people.

Early on, the author indicates his belief vast additional quantities of water lie deep within the earth. In doing so, he missed an opportunity to reference my book on the very same subject, coauthored with Robert Bisson, Modern Groundwater Exploration. We will forgive Fishman for his oversight, though I suspect he will appreciate the additional information our book provides on the topic.

Contrasts in Water Policies
Fishman’s strongest chapter, “Dolphins in the Desert,” features Las Vegas. Area water manager Patricia Mulroy has spent 20 years teaching a wide variety of conservation techniques that allow the hotels to seemingly flaunt their water use in fountains and greenery while impressing on area residents the need to conserve their scarce water resources with tender love and care. This chapter is a fantastic tutorial on water management where water could hardly be of shorter supply.

In contrast to Las Vegas’ wise water policies where water is scarce, Fishman discusses Atlanta’s poor policies where water would seemingly be more abundant. He then takes the reader on a water tour through Texas and California farmland, favorably describing agriculture biotechnology company Monsanto’s vigorous work to develop drought-tolerant crops.

“Monsanto is spending tens of millions of dollars a year developing drought-tolerant varieties of crops—plants whose genes have been tweaked so, biologically, they make better use of less water,” writes Fishman.

Fishman spends 107 pages describing water issues in Australia, where water is in short supply. You will learn everything about Adelaide’s and Perth’s water supply and the Murray River basin. This is certainly interesting and not dissimilar to many places in the United States, such as the over-allocation of the Colorado River serving California farmers and Las Vegas casinos.

Fishman then moves on to India, where the world’s largest democracy has arguably the worst water supply system. Nearly half the nation depends on water trucks driving the streets and allowing people to fill their buckets from the backs of the trucks.

Tales Tied Together
The book reminds me of Freakonomics, where authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner  tied together unrelated stories vaguely connected to economic principles and ended up with a bestseller that had little academic rigor. Fishman takes a similar tack, but his stories and personal profiles are outstanding.

Fishman brings water issues home to everyday consumers. He tells us how much water is used in creating a pair of Levi’s blue jeans, and how much water is desalted and used each day on a cruise ship. His description of the bottled water industry is interesting but at times a little too preachy.

Markets Can Solve Problems
The author powerfully explains the primary cause of water problems: governments have made water free or nearly free for most people. Putting a price on water, he observes, seems heartless when everybody needs it. The downside, however, is that free water causes people to misuse water. Without market incentives, many important water problems will remain unsolved.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director of The Heartland Institute.