Water Problems Real but Workable

Published February 1, 2007

Healthy Waters
Mike Magee, M.D.
Pfizer, November 2005
160 pages, $19.95, ISBN 1889793167

Mike Magee is a medical doctor who enjoys getting involved in politics–politics of a very liberal bent, as evidenced by his Internet-based program, “Health Politics.” Magee has written a half-dozen well-researched books on subjects regarding which he initially had little knowledge.

Healthy Waters is one such book, but his honest admission of the learning journey upon which he launched himself is refreshing. The book is fairly well balanced, reasonably accurate, and focuses attention on water problems too often lost in the shuffle of more politically exciting issues.

Unfortunate Leftist Rhetoric

A quick review of the book finds poignant quotes from United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, Sandra Postel of the World Watch Institute, Princeton University literature professor Toni Morrison, and the late television marine biologist Jacques Cousteau.

Not surprisingly, all of these individuals are unabashed leftists.

The book is also littered with gratuitous and scientifically unsupported assertions about various problems allegedly produced by anthropogenic global warming.

Future Concerns

However, if you can manage to skip over the polemics in the first three chapters, you’ll find Magee settling down to the useful business of describing the nature of the water limitations that exist regarding agriculture, industry, energy production, and city living.

Magee summarizes his concerns over future water availability as follows: “On a worldwide scale, agriculture has been a remarkable success story, keeping general pace with a human population that has roughly doubled in the last half century. … They have done it with new high-yielding seeds, new plants, better central strategies–but most of all with water. … The problem is this; over the next 25 years, it is expected that developing countries will increase water withdrawal for agriculture by 14 percent, but efficient use of water will improve by only 4 percent.”

In-Depth Statistics Provided

The author’s devotion to statistics is exemplary. Where else can you find a table like the one below.

Magee also does a phenomenal job mining statistics from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which alone is worth the read. Here is but one example:

“As populations increase, food production will likely grow as well. This can be accomplished by expanding the amount of land in use, expanding the number of crops, shortening the time to maturity, and expanding yield per acre. In the past 50 years, agricultural land use has increased 12 percent, so that today 11 percent of all of the planet’s land surface is committed to agriculture. Yet, when measured against population growth, planted land per person has actually declined 40 percent, reflecting increased efficiencies and decreased costs.”

Water for Crops

Magee reports that irrigation of lands in developing countries is expected to grow an additional 20 percent by 2030, while the overall rate of increase in irrigation worldwide is slowing. The net increase between now and 2030 will be less than half the rate of increase in the past 30 years.

Calorie Consumption:
Narrowing the Gap Between Developed and Developing Countries
(per capita per day)
  1998 Projected 2015 Projected 2030 Projected Increase
Developed Countries (industrialized) 3,380 3,440 3,500 +3.5%
Transition Countries 2,905 3,060 3,180 +9.5%
Percentage Less than Developed Countries -14% -11% -9%
Developing Countries 2,681 2,850 2,980 +11.2%
Percentage Less than Developed Countries -21% -17% -15%
Source: FAO, 2002

Global agriculture capacity is judged to be adequate to feed our growing worldwide populations for at least the next 25 years, Magee points out. He also notes the food is not equitably distributed: 1998 figures showed 815 million undernourished people around the world, with 95 percent in developing countries, 3.5 percent in transition countries, and 1.5 percent in developed countries.

Shortages of food in some areas are chronic, while others are stimulated by manmade or natural disasters. The focus of worldwide aid agencies is on stabilizing vulnerable populations and raising their health and strength back to baseline levels so that with guidance and investment they might move to a more secure and sustainable nutritional baseline.


In his section on industry, Magee does a marvelous job of calling for verifiable statistics, more reliable consumption indicators, improved industrial efficiency, water recycling, water quality measures, and the implementation of advanced technology.

On the regional level, he says we need better, more representative governance, multinational river basin and trans-boundary agreements, and acceptance of water management by industry.

Hydropower Growing

Magee is equally adept in defining the relationships between water needs and energy production.

He recognizes that electricity especially changes the lives of women. With electricity, household duties take less time and effort. With a lighter daily load, women have more time for productive employment and education.

Moreover, by eliminating the need to burn polluting biomass fuels indoors, electricity has become a true life-enhancer. Sadly, it is not yet widely available in much of the developing world.

Magee tells us that access to domestic electricity is available only to small percentages of the population in many African countries, such as in Chad (2.8 percent), Uganda (6.9 percent), Niger (7.9 percent), Tanzania (8.9 percent), Mozambique (9.9 percent), Madagascar (11.19 percent), Kenya (11.7 percent), Nigeria (25.5 percent), and Morocco (46.9 percent). In Asia, similar low accessibility exists in Nepal (18 percent), Bangladesh (24.9 percent), and India (51.1 percent).

While many analysts forecast that hydropower will represent a smaller percentage of overall U.S. electricity production in the future, Magee points out the use of hydropower is growing in the developing world. It is the dominant power source in Afghanistan, Congo, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nepal, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, and Zaire. China will soon double its hydropower when the Three Gorges Dam becomes operational.

Urban Problems

Magee completely nails the problems cities face regarding limited water supplies: “Urban water and waste management, at best, is enormously complex, Water systems, waste systems, flood prevention, pollution management, sustainable resourcing while maintaining growth … requires funding, planning, execution, monitoring, and integration.” He further explains that sanitation is worst in small cities.

I was truly sold on the book when Magee refrained from echoing the standard leftist gloom-and-doom attitude that water will be the cause of future national conflicts. He accurately quotes Aaron Wolfe of Oregon State University, who researched thousands of water conflicts over the centuries and determined that only 2 percent ended in violence.

The record is clear: When it comes to water, nations–even those in conflict with each other–have found a way to get along.

While Magee undermines his credibility somewhat with his continual griping about climate variance, all in all the book is worth reading.

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