Summary and book reviews of When the Rivers Run Dry by Fred Pearce

When the Rivers Run Dry

Water--The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century

By Fred Pearce

When the Rivers Run Dry
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  • Hardcover: Mar 2006,
    320 pages.
    Paperback: Mar 2007,
    336 pages.

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Book Summary

Throughout history, rivers have been our foremost source of fresh water both for agriculture and for individual consumption, but now economists say that by 2025 water scarcity will cut global food production by more than the current U.S. grain harvest. In this groundbreaking book, veteran science correspondent Fred Pearce focuses on the dire state of the world's rivers to provide our most complete portrait yet of the growing world water crisis and its ramifications for us all.

Pearce traveled to more than thirty countries while researching When the Rivers Run Dry, examining the current state of crucial water sources like the Indus River in Pakistan, the Colorado River in the United States, and the Yellow and Yangzte rivers in China. Pearce deftly weaves together the complicated scientific, economic, and historic dimensions of the water crisis, showing us its complex origins-from waste to wrong-headed engineering projects to high-yield crop varieties that have saved developing countries from starvation but are now emptying their water reserves. He reveals the most daunting water issues we face today, among them the threat of flooding in China's Yellow River, where rising silt levels will prevent dykes from containing floodwaters; the impoverishment of Pakistan's Sindh, a once-fertile farming valley now destroyed by the 14 million tons of salt that the much-depleted Indus deposits annually on the land but cannot remove; the disappearing Colorado River, whose reservoirs were once the lifeblood of seven states but which could dry up as soon as 2007; and the poisoned springs of Palestine and the Jordan River, where Israeli control of the water supply has only fed conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

The situation is dire, but not without remedy. Pearce argues that the solution to the growing worldwide water shortage is not more and bigger dams but greater efficiency and a new water ethic based on managing the water cycle for maximum social benefit rather than narrow self-interest.

They serve a strong brew at the Alamo coffee-house in Presidio, a small farming town near the US-Mexican border. They need to. Times are tough, says Terry Bishop, looking up from his second mugful. This land, next to the Rio Grande in Texas, has probably been continuously farmed for longer than anywhere in America, he says. Six hundred years minimum. It has been home to scalp-hunters and a penal colony; it has seen Comanche raids, Spanish missionaries, marauding Mexican revolutionaries and a population boom during a recent aliens amnesty. All that time, it has been farmed. But soon it will be back to sagebrush and salt cedar. Climbing the levee by the river at the end of his last field, Bishop shows me the problem. The once mighty Rio Grande is now reduced to a sluggish brown trickle.

In its middle stretches, the river often dries up entirely in the summer. All the water has been taken out by cities and farmers upstream.

"The river's been disappearing since the 50s," says Bishop,...

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You might well think that the only rivers that should be of concern to us are the ones in our own back yard but to think that doesn't take into account our "virtual water" consumption. For example, an average American might use about 40 gallons of water a day for drinking, washing and cleaning, perhaps double that if they live in the suburbs with a yard to water. However that is a tiny fraction of the water we actually consume because it takes 250-650 gallons of water to grow a pound of rice, 130 gallons to grow a pound of wheat, 65 gallons to grow a pound of potatoes, 3,000 gallons to make a quarter-pound burger (assuming the cow is grain fed) and 500-1,000 gallons to create a quart of milk. Pearce estimates that the average meat-eating, beer-swilling American consumes 100-times his own weight in water every day! As for the clothes on our backs - it takes 25 bathtubs of water to grow the 9 ounces of cotton to create one t-shirt! So, when we drink our Central American coffee, and consume our Thai rice or wear Pakistani cotton we are influencing the hydrology of those regions. If all the water used to irrigate the crops fell from the sky as rain or was taken from rivers or underground sources in sustainable amounts we'd be in good shape, but sadly and increasingly, that is not the case.

Of course, life isn't as simple as stop consuming and the problems will go away. The good news is that water is never destroyed - whatever we do to it, somewhere, sometime it will return - every day more than 800 million acre-feet of rain fall on the earth - the challenge is not having enough water but ensuring that the water is where we need it. Pearce's view is that we don't need more and bigger dams but instead need to manage the water cycle better by returning to the ancient ways of "harvesting the water where it falls" and utilizing high-tech irrigation methods to provide "more crop per drop", and above all, we need to "manage the water cycle for maximum social benefit rather than narrow self-interest".

He calls for a second agricultural revolution - we've had the green revolution which increased harvests to feed a growing world population but at the expense of water supplies (the new high-producing crops tend to use more water than traditional varieties). Now we need a blue revolution before the gains of the past generations are wiped out. Easy say but difficult to put into practice!

All in all, this is a very interesting book that explores and addresses the water issues facing the world. The only factor that this, and most books about specific environment issues, seems to avoid discussing entirely is the overwhelming factor that is at the heart of all of our environmental issues - there are just too many people on our little planet!   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

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Media Reviews
Author Blurb James Speth, dean, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies
Fred Pearce is an artist with a pen, writing beautifully and movingly about an emerging crisis that will galvanize the world's attention. Combine the water issue Pearce so cogently presents with the threat of global climate disruption and you have what's waiting for us if we don't respond-the perfect storm of the environment.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. The news, recounted with a scientist's relentless accumulation of observable fact, is grim.

Booklist - Carol Hagges

Starred Review. Pearce's powerful imagery, penetrating analyses, and passionate advocacy make this required reading for environmental proponents and civic leaders everywhere.

San Francisco Chronicle

Pearce does a masterful job of describing the raft of problems that drying rivers cause. . . . Pearce's anecdotes and examples are meticulously catalogued. . . . When the Rivers Run Dry is a timely book on an underreported issue. In an ideal world it would have a large audience here and abroad. . . .Those who patiently take Pearce's tour through the global water crisis will be treated to an enriching and farsighted work.

Reader Reviews
EP

When the Rivers Run Dry
This is a scary reason to make the world wake up and conserve our rivers and streams by stopping the trash thrown into them. We all will have to start using less water by having more natural area and small amount of grass and flowers to require water...   Read More

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All About Water

Did you know?

  • The earth contains about 1.1 quadrillion acre-feet of water, but 97% is seawater.
  • Of the remaining 28 trillion acre-feet of freshwater on or near the surface, two-thirds is locked up as ice.
  • Only the remaining 9.7 trillion acre-feet is in liquid form, mostly in underground aquifers.
  • However, what is more meaningful for scientists is how fast a particular source can be replenished by rain. For example, many of the world's biggest aquifers are under deserts in North Africa and the Middle-East (the legacy of eons past), but they are not getting replenished.
  • It's estimated that it takes 1/2 an Olympic sized swimming pool in water to feed, water and clothe an average westerner.
  • The world grows...

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