water everywhere, but too few drops for all
By Lisa Simeone
The Baltimore Sun
The most precious and dangerously threatened substance
in a troubled world is not oil.
Ask someone what causes wars in different parts of the
world, and you're likely to get a few all-purpose answers.
You have the standard human vexations: greed, fear, intolerance,
general tendency toward violence. And then you have the
more practical reasons, such as natural resources - especially,
people will say, oil. After all, modern societies depend
on oil, and we all know the Middle East is rich in it.
"No war for oil" became a rallying cry in protests
against the recent war in Iraq. But for a lot of the world's
population, oil is the least of it. Water is the thing.
The scenes of Iraqis scrambling for water in the wake
of war might lead one to believe that it takes a cataclysmic
event to disrupt the flow of this seemingly endless resource.
Not so. All over the world, including in this country,
water is running out.
Newspaper and magazine articles have started to catch
up, with a spate of books published recently about the
worldwide water shortage. Now, even non-water-wonks are
beginning to hear terms such as "aquifer depletion,"
"equitable use" and the seemingly simple "water
management." These are technical terms, not exactly
designed to induce passion. Yet passion there is aplenty
in the story of water, as several of these books make
clear. Water Wars by Diane Raines Ward (Riverhead Books,
280 pages, $24.95) is the newest of the bunch, and aptly
titled. But as all the books reveal, wars are already
being fought over water, with more to come.
It's easy to believe, for instance, that the tension
in the Middle East is all about religion and nationalism.
Take the Six-Day War of 1967. According to Israeli Prime
Minister Ariel Sharon, "In reality, it started two-and-a-half
years earlier, on the day Israel decided to act against
the diversion of the Jordan [River]."
Israel, through the canals and pipes of its National
Water Carrier, had been diverting water from the Jordan
River to deliver water to its people. The Jordan has its
source in several streams that originate in Syria, Jordan
and Lebanon. Arab League leaders, angered by the water
diversion downstream, decided to do their own diversion
Israel warned its neighbors that if they tried to cut
off any of the water supply there would be hell to pay.
They did, and there was. Israel bombed water projects
on the Hasbani and Wazzani rivers in Lebanon and the Yarmouk
River dam in Syria, then annexed the Golan Heights, thus
ensuring control of the Jordan River's headwaters.
As late as last September, U.S. diplomats were called
in to mediate when Israel and Lebanon exchanged angry
words over construction of a Lebanese water project to
pump water from the Wazzani to the dry towns of southern
Lebanon. (Is your head spinning yet? Among its many virtues,
Marq de Villiers' book, Water [Houghton Mifflin, 368 pages,
$15], provides maps, a feature the other two books lack.)
Today, Israel controls most of the aquifers in the West
Bank and Gaza Strip. Water is considered a security issue;
you cannot tour the network of valves and canals of the
National Water Carrier, and officials will not say how
much water is actually transported from the Jordan River.
Israel issues licenses to all residents who want to dig
wells. The authorities issue more licenses to Jewish settlers
than to Palestinians, and settlers' wells can run as deep
as 750 meters, Palestinian wells 140. Here, in desert
land, water is political.
And so it is all over the world. Turkey holds the upper
hand, or more accurately, the upper waters, in a dispute
over the Tigris and Euphrates. Turkey is building dams
to control the two powerful rivers, for irrigation, consumption
and hydroelectric power. Downstream, Syria and Iraq stand
to lose water. The attitude of the Turkish government
is, "You have oil, we have water."
In 1990, when three dams were being proposed on the so-called
Blue Nile in Ethiopia, where the river originates, Egypt's
then-Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Boutros Boutros-Ghali
stated that the construction of any dam on the upper reaches
of the Nile would be considered an act of war.
The Jordan, the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Nile, the
Indus, the Rio Grande - all are examples of international
river basins. Many countries share them, and all believe
they have a right to use the water in them.
The question of right vs. need is a prime focus of Jeffrey
Rothfeder's Every Drop for Sale (Tarcher/Putnam, 205 pages,
$24.95). Is water a right, like the air we breathe, or
a need, like oil, on which we've come to depend? Rothfeder
is a passionate proponent of the former definition, and
his book is the most accessible of the three to a general
Though all cover many of the same subjects - consequences
of dam-building, over-draining of aquifers, water-transportation
techniques (wait till you read about Medusa bags!), the
world's hot spots - Rothfeder spends less time on the
minutiae of cubic feet, rates of evaporation, levels of
salinity and other highly technical information.
His book reads more like an essay and should be eye-opening
to a variety of readers. It does lack footnotes, however,
a hindrance if you're interested in studying the subject
more deeply. And its index is sparse, missing some critical
entries. But his stories of the privatization of water,
and the people affected by it, are riveting - especially
the drama of the residents of Cochabamba, Bolivia.
In the spring of 2000 the Cochabambans fought a water
war against their own government, which had cut a deal
with the U.S.-based Bechtel Corp. to retool the city's
failing water system and deliver clean, potable water.
Price-gouging followed, talks broke down and the citizens
eventually rioted. People were killed, injured and taken
away to prisons and never seen again.
By the time it was all over, the citizens had won. They
forced the Bolivian government to break its contract with
Bechtel, and to pass a law returning all future water
decisions to local communities. (Bechtel is, of course,
the lead contractor for U.S.-financed reconstruction in
All three books are also personal odysseys, as the authors
talk about traveling the globe and seeing firsthand the
effects of man's attempts to manage water. Ward fleshes
out historic characters such as the great 19th-century
water engineer William Willcocks, who built the first
dam across the Nile, and Sir William Hudson, who built
the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme in Australia.
These men were explorers of the old school, who believed
in harnessing nature to help people. The fact that their
projects had unintended consequences - malaria brought
on by an increase in mosquitoes, more ferocious floods
when rivers do breach dams, flooding of wetlands crucial
to filtering waste, build-up of silt - does not diminish
their accomplishments. As de Villiers writes, "Thus
are ecosystems ever changed, more by the cumulative deeds
of good men doing what they believe in than by the rapacious
actions of green demonology."
There are plenty of stories of the United States, as
well, with coverage of the Hoover Dam, the Tennessee Valley
Authority (a model for the world), the Mississippi River,
the Florida Everglades and, most vividly, the tale of
a desert town called Los Angeles and how it got - rather,
stole - its water.
The fictionalized version in the movie Chinatown is not
far off the mark. All the authors see the entire Southwest,
which is rapidly depleting its water supply, as a cautionary
tale. But de Villiers reserves particular scorn for California,
calling its method of water management "the planet's
most expensive welfare system."
UNESCO has calculated the absolute bare-bones minimum
of clean water required as 50 liters per person per day
- that's for drinking, cooking, bathing and sanitation.
The average American flushes half that down the toilet
with every use. My household uses a hundred times that.
Yet I pay only about 18 bucks a month for it. Water in
this country is plentiful and heavily subsidized. ("Get
the government out of my life" doesn't seem to extend
to faucets, toilets and garden hoses.)
We may have the luxury of such profligacy today, the
authors say, but we won't forever. And rather than wait
for a crisis such as the one in Cochabamba, or similar
ones now heating up in Arizona, California, Florida and
here in Maryland, we'd better take a look at our water
bills, and the management behind them, a lot more closely.