BookBrowse Reviews When the Rivers Run Dry by Fred Pearce

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When the Rivers Run Dry

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

by Fred Pearce

When the Rivers Run Dry by Fred Pearce
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2006, 320 pages
    Mar 2007, 336 pages

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Powerful imagery, penetrating analyses, and passionate advocacy make this required reading

Pearce traveled around the world, visiting more than thirty countries, to research When The Rivers Run Dry, and the report he brings back is, to be honest, pretty depressing but nonetheless very important to know about. From the Indus in Pakistan, to the Yangzte in China and to the Colorado River in the US, not forgetting the Amazon, the Nile and the Congo - the majority of the world's great waterways, and thus the huge populations who rely on them, are in crisis; and it's not just the rivers themselves but the vast underground reservoirs that are being drained too.

The solution isn't easy but, according to Pearce, it is possible - we need to change how we think of water - instead of thinking of water as an endlessly renewal source that falls from the sky we need to think of it as a limited and precious resource that needs to be conserved - and he's not talking about putting a brick in the toilet or cutting down ones time in the shower, the first step is for us to understand our real water consumption and where that water comes from.

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, a pound of sugar can take 400 gallons of water to grow and a pound of coffee tips the scales at 2,650 gallons of water!

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 (see sidebar for more on this).

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 doesn't believe we need more and bigger dams but feels that we need to manage the water cycle better, to return to the ancient ways of "harvesting the water where it falls" but also 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 - all easy things to 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!

This review was originally published in August 2006, and has been updated for the March 2007 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  All About Water

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