When the Rivers Run Dry by Fred Pearce

30050Nonfiction — print. Beacon Press, 2006. 311 pgs. Library copy.

In his 2006 book about “Water — The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century”, Pearce examines the disappearing rivers, lakes, and underground aquifers to make the claims that when the rivers run dry, the crops fail, we mine our children’s water, wetlands die, floods may not be far behind, we build more dams, men go to war over water, civilizations fall, we go looking for new water, we try to catch the rain, and in conclusion “we go with the flow”. The chapters of this book all correspond with one of these answers of what happens after rivers dry up, and the historical context and present-day information offer a pretty damning account of dams (no pun intended).

“Most dams just don’t deliver as advertised, the commission said. Average cost overruns were 56 percent. Half of hydroelectric dams produced significantly less power than promised; two thirds of those built to supply water to cities delivered less water than promised; a quarter of them delivered less than half what their brochures claimed. Dams built to irrigate fields were not better. A quarter of them irrigated less than 35 percent of the land intended. Even damns that promised to protect against floods “have increased the vulnerability of river communities to floods,” ofter because their reservoirs have been kept full to maximize hydroelectric production” (pg. 135).

He also explores the concept of “hidden water”; that is the amount of water it took to grow and produce that product. What if the nutrition labels on food bags listed all the hidden amounts of energy and water it took to create the end food product? You would find that the single bag of rice you bought at the grocery store last week takes between 250 and 650 gallons of water to make. Astronomically high when you consider humans drink only 250 gallons (or one ton) of water annually. And there is also a discuss of water politics — and water wars — in the Middle East, China, and India that provided a unique perspective on rapid industrialization and the Arab/Israeli conflict.

For the most part, this is an interesting, well-written book that explores a major issue often overlooked by the world at large. There are certain sections that I found less interesting than others or in-depth discussions of historical conflicts over water that don’t connect very well with his thesis. The most frustrating thing about Pearce’s book, though, is the fact that is was written in 2006 and many of his examples of what not to do or conflicts over water or even steps in the right direction have been stalled due to the global economic crisis, and I was continually frustrated because I wanted to know how the conflict ended. (I guess that’s what Google is for.) Still, this is an interesting read if you’re at all interested in the liquid that keeps you alive.


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