TABLE OF CONTENTS
Book Review When the Rivers Run Dry
Reviewed by: Jane Radcliffe
When the Rivers Run Dry (Boston, Beacon Press, 2006), completes the title for Part I with “…the crops fail”. There follows a chapter entitled “The Human Sponge” which soon gave me a compelling thought: “Economists call the water involved in the growing and manufacture of products traded around the world ‘virtual water’. In this terminology, every ton of wheat arriving at a dockside carries with it in virtual form the thousand tons of water needed to grow it. The global virtual-water trade is estimated to be around 800 million acre-feet a year, or twenty Nile Rivers. Of that, two thirds is in a huge range of crops, from grains to vegetable oil, sugar to cotton; a quarter is in meat and dairy products; and just a tenth is in industrial products. That means that nearly a tenth of all the water used in raising crops goes into the international virtual-water trade. This trade ‘moves water in volumes and over distances beyond the wildest imaginings of water engineers’, says Tony Allan of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, who invented the term virtual water. The biggest net exporter of virtual water is the United States.
“Riding the Water Cycle”, which is the following chapter, breaks down how it works. “First, there is the water that falls as rain onto the land and then evaporates from the land again. This involves about 49 billion acre-feet each year. Some evaporates from soil; some is taken up by plants as they grow and is then released from leaves in a process called transpiration; some evaporates from bodies of water, including manmade reservoirs. Second, there is a constant flow of water from the land where rainfall exceeds evaporation, to the sea, where evaporation exceeds rainfall. Some of this flows directly off the land, some shoots down gullies that form when it rains, and some flows down permanent rivers. Most of the water we use around the world today comes from this part of the water cycle. About 32 billion acre-feet of water makes the journey from the land to the sea every year. Or it did before we started diverting it.”
Subsequent sections complete the title in other ways. In Part II it’s “…we mine our children’s water.” It vignettes a village in India that is actively and dangerously pumping out deep levels of its water table in order to sell trucked-in water to grow crops that have long since proved unsuitable to the region’s capacity. Part III completes it with “...the wet places die” and adds the tragedy of Lake Chad dams that are ruining the surrounding area. Part IV uses “…floods may not be far behind” which shows examples of dams that have actually been the cause of floods. Part V expands on this theme with other examples, and completes the title clause with “…engineers pour concrete.”
Part VI uses “…men go to war over water” and shows Israel’s Six Day War as the first modern war over water. It’s pretty convincing. Part VII “…when civilizations fall”, shows us the profligate use of the Colorado River, clearly unsustainable, and delineates its decline. “The 1450-mile Colorado, which drains a twelfth of the continental United States, is the lifeblood of seven states, delivering its water to burgeoning cities, feeding irrigation projects, and generating hydroelectricity. Since the 1930s, many of its beautiful canyons have been flooded to make reservoirs. So much water is captured that the amount that makes it to the sea has fallen to nearly zero, leaving the Colorado delta to shrivel in the sun. A once rich landscape where jaguars and beavers roamed, it has not seen fresh river water since 1993. And no river water means no silt to maintain the delta, which is growing ever more vulnerable to tidal erosion.”
Part VIII uses “…we go looking for new water.” In its chapter “Closed Basins and Closed Minds” Pearce says, “The Salton Sea just happened. It was all the fault of Charles Rockwood, a land speculator in California’s boom years at the start of the twentieth century. He and his buddy George Chaffey, who had already made a fortune planting orange groves in Los Angeles, dreamed of turning a desert depression close to the Mexican border into an agricultural boom town. They planned to do it by capturing some of the flow of the mighty Colorado River from Yuma, Arizona, sixty-odd miles to the east.” He details how the silt overwhelmed the farms that grew up, how Rockwood compensated for that with a canal to the Alamo River, how the following year the Colorado flooded, creating the inland sea. It functions as a sump, becoming increasingly salty. Its future is hard to predict.
Part IX “...we try to catch the rain” has some examples, in other parts of the world, of water irrigation practices that date back many centuries and are still effective today. The final section, Part X ends with “…we go with the flow” and talks largely about Europe. “The summer rains are getting fiercer, owing possibly to global warming. Glacial melting adds to the flow. But something also has gone badly wrong with the way Europe manages its rivers. Engineering intended to prevent floods is, it increasingly seems, conspiring to create them. We’ve seen how the operation of large dams can cause floods. But this problem extends to the entire management of a river system. All the major rivers that flooded in 2002 had been engineered specifically to banish floods. Their wetlands had been drained and their meanders straightened. The rivers were held in check behind high levees, and all impediments to having the water rush to the sea had been dynamited or chain-sawed from their path. But instead of eliminating floods, all this effort simply sped the water to the nearest bottleneck, where the floods became concentrated.”
When he comes back to the United States, he tells us “New Orleans was always in trouble. Water filled its basements in the first months after its founding. Over the years, the French raised the natural levees ever higher to prevent floods. After an inundation in 1735, they built earthworks for 45 miles around the city…but still it flooded.” He talks of Saddam Hussein’s draining of the marshes of southern Iraq as a way to punish the Marsh Arabs. Then he describes a drip-irrigation project in India-an old technique-which is having positive results.
He ends with “The good news is that we never destroy water. We may pollute it, irrigate crops with it, and flush it down our toilets. We may even encourage it to evaporate by leaving it around in large reservoirs in the hot sun. But somewhere, sometime, it will return, purged and fresh, in rain clouds over India or Africa or the rolling hills of Europe. Each day more than 800 million acre-feet of water rains onto the earth. Water is the ultimate renewable resource. ….To manage the water cycle better, we have to give up the idea that water has to be extracted from nature and put inside metal or behind concrete before it can be used. We have to treat nature as the ultimate provider of water rather than its wasteful withholder. We must learn to ride the water cycle rather than replace it. Do read this exciting new book.
Jane Radcliffe is a FOER member from San Francisco. She runs Study Buddy Tutorial Service. You can contact her at 415-586-4577