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When the Rivers Run Dry: Water--The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century
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It was with the Colorado River that engineers first learned to control great rivers. But now the Colorado¡¯s reservoirs are two-thirds empty. Great rivers like the Indus and the Nile, the Rio Grande and the Yellow River are running on empty. And economists say that by 2025, water scarcity will cut global food production by more than the current U.S. grain harvest.

Veteran science correspondent Fred Pearce traveled to more than thirty countries while researching When the Rivers Run Dry; it is our most complete portrait yet of the growing world water crisis. Deftly weaving together the complicated scientific, economic, and historical dimensions of the crisis, he shows us its complex origins, from waste to wrong-headed engineering projects to high-yield crop varieties that have kept developing countries from starvation but are now emptying their water reserves. And Pearce¡¯s vivid reportage reveals the personal stories behind failing rivers, barren fields, desertification, water wars, floods, and even the death of cultures.

Finally, 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.

Customer Reviews:

  • When the rivers run dry... many people will die...
    Water is the most important substance in life. Our body consists of 70% water. Without drinking water, we die after a few days. Although water seems inexhaustible, the reality is different, due to the current way in which capitalism organized agriculture. Agriculture is used primarily to produce fodder, or even worse : biofuels.

    Fred Pearce compares a quarter-pound hamburger with a pound of bread. The hamburger needs 11.500 liters of water in its production, whereas a pound of wheat can be produced with 500 liters water.

    Capitalism still thrives on the belief that the sky is the limit. In the last 50 years, in the Great Plains, a volume of groundwater was pumped up that would need 2.000 years of rainwater to replenish.

    Pearce focuses also on cotton. Cotton grows best in hot weather, but needs a lot of water to grow. He describes the situation in Egypt, Pakistan and what finally happened to the Aral Sea.

    The capitalist depletion of our precious water sources for irrigation is actually enhanced by global warming. The glaciers of the Himalaya feed seven of the greatest rivers of Asia : Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Salween, Irrawaddy, Mekong and Yangtze. Two billion people depend on those for drinking and irrigating their crops. And the glaciers are melting... The Yellow River has seen its flow diminished with 24 % in comparison to its average flow in the last decade of the 20th century. The Colorado river rises in the Rocky Mountains and cities like Denver, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Los Angeles depend on it, although there is less and less water in the river. In 2002 the flow was only 15 % of what it was a century ago. What was formerly known as a "big river", the Rio Grande, reaches the Mexican border now without a single drop of water.

    Fred Pearce also goes on to propose some solutions, like catching rain water. This is certainly helpful, but I think that a change in diet - to less or no meat - is more important.
    ...more info
  • A blue revolution is needed...
    ... to fill the dry rivers. The "green revolution", introduced primarily in Asia to grow food for ever-growing populations, has been just one of a range of water-guzzling agricultural systems leading to rivers running dry and water tables sinking to dangerous levels. There are others of course, such as water wastage by urban populations and industry. But nothing takes so much of the world's most precious liquid as agriculture. Water, the ultimate renewable resource at the global level, is becoming scarce in many places where it is needed for the survival of plants, animals, and societies. Fred Pearce has criss-crossed the planet investigating a multitude of specific cases where water has literally disappeared and the land been destroyed through salinization, wind erosion and chemical pollution. In others, people continue to waste water for short-term profit as if nobody else was needing some of it. Many books are appearing on water scarcity and explaining how necessary new thinking on water management is needed at all levels, Pearce takes a direct approach and personalizes his findings. He imparts his discussions with local farmers, community and business leaders, environmental protection agents, politicians and scientists. The approach makes this a very accessible book despite the sombre topic. It is not only ample food for thought but also a call for action and participation. He reminds us forcefully "we all live downstream" from somebody else.

    Pearce discusses the overexploitation by commercial agriculture of aquifers, water resources that have been stored in the earth for thousands of years. Cotton and water-intensive crops like rice and alfalfa [for fodder] are being grown despite the dramatically sinking water tables. Rivers are tapped without regard to the danger these "abstractions" cause for the whole watershed and ecosystem. Rivers are rerouted and dammed to supply water to urban areas or industries in dryer regions. Reservoirs are constructed to build up water reserves without taking into account that evaporation levels that can more than offset any calculated benefit. Pearce describes some of the most dramatic examples in China. In addition to the well-known Three Gorges Dam project, there are others that literally require moving mountains to get water from the water-rich south to the dryer north. He indicates that there are alternatives being discussed among local scientists.

    Rerouting rivers and eliminating the wetlands that allow for natural flood cycles have been common in many places. The results have been dramatically demonstrated during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the spectacular floods in Central Europe during the last few years. Nature has a way of getting back at these interferences, Pearce demonstrates.

    Water resources are a major cause for conflict in and between states. With growing water scarcity these conflicts will increase and explode into wars. One of the most serious and potentially explosive situations exists between Israelis and Palestinians. Palestinians have lost access to their water resources and are prevented by law or the new "security fence" from finding new ones. Negotiations based on mutual respect and understanding are indispensable to reverse the conflictual circumstances where several countries share river systems, such as the Nile, Brahmaputra, Rio Grande and others.

    What is being done? Pearce shares success stories from past and present to demonstrate what can be achieved by taking a different, more ethical, approach to water as a precious and shared resource. Water can be harvested from rain and fog, assisting the replenishment of local water tables. Water flows during floods can be reduced through check dams and other traditional methods that allow the water to sink into the ground rather than run off taking valuable topsoil with it. Examples of water conservation programs are many, demonstrating also that different techniques can be combined, such as water harvesting and flood controls. For example, Southern California receives fifty percent of the water it needs through rain. "We should be catching our own rain before trying to buy other people's," responded one L.A. environmentalist to Pearce.

    While Pearce's book is political in the sense of water management and national policies, it does not tackle one of the key international political debates: water as a "commodity" versus as a vital resource. The privatization of water management systems around the world and its impacts, while of highest importance to people and their right to safe and accessible water, is not addressed here. As other reviewers noted, references to sources are not included. It diminishes the research value of the book to some degree. Still, this "journey into the heart of the world's water crisis" is essential reading for all of us. We all have a role to play to prevent rivers from running dry completely. [Friederike Knabe]...more info
  • Running out of water
    The only other book I have read about the subject "water" was called "Water: A Natural History," by Alice Outwater. If I had to compare this book with that one, I'd say both are scary but this one is scarier. Many of the world's rivers are near death due to overuse. And, as usual, the main culprits are politicians, bureaucrats and big business. There are many ramifications from the slow death of rivers -- dying inland seas, depleted aquifers, salt buildup on cropland. But Pearce details many cheap and simple ways to reduce our dependence on river water, including catching dew, fog and rainwater. If there is any topic in this book I would have like to have seen covered in greater detail, it would be the low-cost alternatives we have at the ready to continue to meet the needs of people everywhere....more info
  • Puzzling
    Journalist Fred Pearce's "When the River Runs Dry" (2006 324-page paperback) is a puzzling presentation. On the one hand it presents the contemporary predicament of worldwide water shortages emerging from prior centuries. Certainly, this shortage is a central issue for survival of Earth's varied populations. On the other hand, the book proffers impossible solutions for humanity's "hydraulic civilization".

    Touring each of the world's principal rivers, wetlands, lakes, and aquifer zones Pearce seeks opinions from experts, victims, scientists, clergy, activists, business people, and politicians. (Unfortunately, there are not footnotes in this book, and thus no opportunity for follow up reading.) His travels in themselves proffer an interesting narrative. From these field trips Pearce presents a wide range of views and suggestions for solving the world's complex water problems. By the end of each of the 10 chapters, the author is proposing his own solutions.

    Pearce's solutions change this text's intent and purpose. He moves from journalist reporting the issue to activist claiming solitary resolution for each water problem. His activism leaves scientific and academic resolutions behind on the dusty dry riverbank.

    The author's answers for saving the world from the emerging water problems range from the technically impossible (i.e. taking the gigantic dams out of river valleys and redirecting rivers) to the simply odd (i.e. giving the wetlands to prehistoric native populations). Dam destruction would, seemingly, only invent more environmental destruction while returning water sources already harnessed would deprive those dependent on them including their earliest users. His solutions are too often simplistic and baffling.

    Obviously, there are answers for the continuing shortages of water across the globe. Pearce's book is best viewed as a warning message and not a resolution advocate. His water warnings, but not his solutions, should be taken seriously.

    This book is recommended to everyone concerned about 21st century water shortages and to all who want to develop answers for the global questions it proposes.

    Happy Halloween!
    ...more info
  • First-Person Account, No Notes

    This is a good book if you like first-person accounts with no notes that fail to mention other stellar works. I confess to being spoiled by Marc de Villers "WATER: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource," and by David Helvarg's "Blue Frontier: Dispatches from America's Ocean Wilderness" as well as William Langewiesche's "The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime."

    It also falls second to "The Winds of Change" and to "The Weather Makers" (I tend to read books in sets to tease out varying perspectives), and ties with "Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum."

    The author's most exciting idea, absolutely worthy of global implementation, is to call for the marking of all products with their "water content." He is stunningly education, truly original within my reading as reviewed at Amazon when he itemizes the amount of water needed to create a pound of rice or any of a number of other products. I would advise any future leader to demand that products be labeled as to their water content, their oil content, and their chlorine content (see my review of Joe Thorton's "Pandora's Poison: Chlorine, Health, and a New Environmental Strategy."

    The author notes that the US is exporting ONE THIRD of its water in the form of products that consumed that amount of water.

    Other highlights from this book, for me personally:

    Six water winners are Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Indonesia, and Russia, with Mongolia as a water wild card.

    Treaties about water are out of date. Technologies, including cement as an answer for re-directing water, are mis-directed.

    97% of the world is sea water--this suggests that we need a MASSIVE global desalination program to protect aquifers from further salination and deterioration (from my own experience: $100M will buy a desalination plant capable of desalinating 100M cubic meters of water a year, or Navy ship or an Army brigade with tanks and artillery, or 1000 diplomats, or 10000 Peace Corps missions, or a day of war over water. It's about trade-offs, and we and not making them wisely.

    Kashmir is about Pakistan's Achilles heel, water.

    India is on a path to destruction. "Water mines" are selling water for $4.00 (four dollars) a TRUCK TANKER LOAD, and basically mining India dry. When the author comments about a "spate of suicides" among Indian farmers, he fails to mention that this number runs toward 2,000 a year dead by their own hand. He predicts aquifer busts in India and China within 20 years, at which point, as other authors discuss more ably, disease, migrations, crime, and poverty will be as plagues unto those two nations.

    Dams produce methane from rotting vegetation, with 8X the greenhouse effect of a coal powered plan of the same capacity. This should in the author's view change the Kyoto calculations. The author is very strong on this point, and suggests that breaking down dams and not building more (e.g. China) should be right up there with global warming as issues for action.

    He notes that the 6 day war in the Middle East was about water, but neglects to mention that Israeli agriculture is using up 50% of the water stolen from the Arabs through underground pipes, yet produces less than 5% of Israel's GDP.

    I was most taken with the author's discussion of "barefoot science" which emerging during his discussion of toxic or poisoned water such as found in Bangladesh. He cites with great admiration one individual who went from village to village testing wells, with very crude tools, providing reliable estimates of toxicity for 10 cents per well.

    A fine book, some excellent insights, but it did leave me a bit cranky. Marq de Villier's book is still the best in class.
    ...more info
  • A Must Read
    Fred Pearce has captured the dim reality of our global water crises and painted the picture in lay-man's terms. The diminishing fresh water problems are only complicated by the fact that water is not static; it constantly changes form and changes its geographic locations. Although we face dire consequences if our present methods of use are continued, Pearce offers a new water ethic by emphasing conservation and efficiency. Without potable fresh water, life can not be sustained on this Earth. This book is a "must read."...more info
  • When Rivers Run Dry
    Organizing and summarizing key points in human water use and conflict over this disappearing resource is the main point of this book. Emphasis is put not only the general concepts of where our water is coming from, how much are we using, for what are we using it, and what can be done about current use to improve and effect future sustainability but also certain regions and their current water crisis. Fred Pearce goes into detail on a number of regions to present the variety of water crisis taking place all over the world. A few of these particular regions focused on include Pakistan, America, India, China, and Palestine. It provides a brutally honest insight into not only the atrocities being committed to the precious resource, but also being committed in the name harvesting the disappearing resource. Over consumption, exportation, and ground water mining are but a few of the issues he talks about, while the improper use, pollution, and overuse of are also major problems described by Pearce. For example, due to these effects, most especially over consumption, the Colorado rive r no longer makes it all the way to the Pacific ocean. Current waste, use, and pollution of water as well as future problems of and the politics surrounding water rights will become a great issue sooner than most people think. If we don't become informed on what is taking place to this important resource and take steps to stop and prevent future waste, we find ourselves loosing it altogether. What has happened to and what will become of water supply: rivers, lakes, and marshes worldwide depend on the actions of people now.
    What humans do with and to water can have a major impact or chain of effects on not only us, but on others and other organisms thousands of miles away. The Mississippi river, for instance, possesses a great drainage basin encompassing large areas of Minnesota and Iowa. Due to an increase in chemical use in farming, such as synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, the runoff has become very polluted. This pollution, in addition to others occurring along the river, escalates and is transported down the river to its outlet into the Gulf of Mexico. As a result of the polluted content, a dead zone has formed at the mouth of the river where life is unsustainable. Ecosystems as well as people who utilizes them, such as the shrimp harvesters in the gulf, suffer loses due to human decisions made thousands of miles away.
    Water is everywhere and can have a monumental impact on peoples' lives in countless ways. From the air we breath and the weather we dress for, all the way to where we can build our houses, the clothes we wear, and the food we eat, water is a major factor. I personally really enjoyed this book and would recommend it as a good read to anyone no matter if you find issues of sustainability and hydrology interesting, or not. How humans utilize and adapt natural processes is another factor that has helped to shape the situation we're in today. Interference with the rivers natural processes and battles over water rights in areas with little water to begin with can result in damage to the hydrology of the area as well as the people. Though Pearce is almost terrifying in the way he presents the issues of sustainability and water use we need to deal with, I feel like given our current situation that a good scare is exactly what we need. The importance of water and the dire situation in which available freshwater has fallen into is relatively unknown by the public. Without an immediate change in water use practices and the cultivation of responsible use, the clean water necessary to a great many systems, and indispensable to life itself, could be lost.
    ...more info
  • When the citations run dry
    This book deals with a very important subject and describes the author's first person observations with passion in a very readable manner. However, the book suffers from several glaring flaws.

    First, almost every page has a discussion based upon at least one major statistic. Unfortunately, the source of none of these statistics is provided. There is no bibiliography, no footnotes or endnotes. A critical reader is given little help in following up on the issues raised. From a policy perspective, this book will not be helpful to anyone attempting to persuade non-believers.

    Second, the discussion eventually becomes repetitious. I don't mind that he is clearly extremely biased, but after a while the diatribes grow tedious, and detract from an otherwise impressive presentation.

    It is a real shame that such passion and effort should result in a book that doesn't share the sources of the research so that others can verify its contents and persuade others to take action....more info
  • Abstractions! Abstractions!
    . . . until there's not a drop to drink. Rivers, such as the Rio Grande and Colorado in the US, the Aral Sea in Russia and the deep aquifers in India are disappearing. Human use, particularly for large-scale agriculture, is drawing more water than Nature can replenish. Water is being channeled, impeded or diverted, and contained. The result is the natural flow of water being severely altered in places around the world. In this captivating and rather disturbing account, Fred Pearce describes how the flow has been altered by us and what the results of our tampering portends.

    Pearce is not afaid of numbers. Think for a moment of what a "cubic kilometre" of water suggests. What lies about a kilometre from your house? Project that distance sideways and upward and envision the area filled with water. Multiply that by 10, by 100, then consider those amounts flowing by every minute, every day, every year. The image can only be called "imposing". These are the values the author deals with in describing rivers, underground aquifers, diversion canals and hydroelectric dams. Too often, the number that was and the one that is today are drastically different.

    Once, irrigation was the diversion of a small portion of a river's content. Now, entire rivers pour into fields for crops. Much of that water seeps away unused or evaporates. When there are many farmers "abstracting" water, legally or illegally, Pearce notes, the result is deprivation elsewhere. Treaties written to share water resources may be rendered invalid by such abstractions, since natural replenishment cannot keep pace. The Nile has been a source of contention for millennia. More recently, a deal between the US and Mexico has left the latter nation in a "water debt". Mexico must shift water from it's own farmer's fields to pay it off. The debt, of course, is due to water abstracted far up the Rio Grande to fill swimming pools and keep golf courses green.

    Great dams, once heralded to protect water resources, are now known to cause immense problems. Some evaporate water faster than the inflow can replenish it. Other times heavy storms threaten the dam's structural integrity requiring the operators to release massive discharges flooding downstream farms and communities. Silting, always constant in rivers, lead to reduced capacity. The real threat today, says Pearce, is that the sources for the water the dams are supposed to contain are shrivelling - the mountain glaciers that feed the streams filling the dams. The adding of more dams over the 45 000 already existing will not provide more water. For one thing, all the best sites are taken.

    These changes in water availability are happening rapidly and are becoming serious international issues. North of the contested Nile, Israel's water policy is draining the resource away from Palestinian communities. Israel's control over the area's water is nearly absolute, leaving the Palestinians to buy tanker water. On the subcontinent, not only is India struggling with its neighbours over water, internal squabbling among States and communities is rife. Farmers, having lost water to dams and other diversions, are drilling boreholes to tap underground aquifers. They told Pearce they're aware the water tables are dropping because wells dry up and new bores must be drilled. "We have to get the water as long as we can" - and every farmer is in contention with his neighbours for the resource.

    Water, of course, recycles. Except where it's weighed down by pollutants, water will rise to become rain. The rains are erratic and local reliability is declining. Pearce offers some suggestions about trapping water. Fog, it seems, offers a ready resource in certain areas and it suitable for pasturage or gardens. Trapping the rains with checkdams to limit runoff is a growing method, particularly in hilly areas. For agriculture, the "drip feed" offers the most promise for crops.

    Pearce's masterful and comprehensive account is long overdue. While many studies have focussed on climate change and unconstrained pollution of the atmosphere, he demonstrates the effect of these conditions on the ground. If the water isn't there to nourish the crops, we don't eat - it's as simple as that. Relying heavily on personal observation and interviews to produce this book, the author presents it as an account all can understand. That's an admirable aim. He provides maps, but doesn't overload the reader with charts and graphs. The only lack in this book is references to the source of his staggering numbers. Few, if any, will doubt their veracity, however. It is, after all, the history and future trends that remain the foundation of this book. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]...more info
  • A 'must' for any serious discussion on water rights, management, and ecology
    The title says it all: WHEN THE RIVERS RUN DRY: WATER - THE DEFINING CRISIS OF THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY - and the chapters back it up, providing a history and examination of more than thirty countries around the world which face water issues. From Pakistan to the US and China, Pearce draws upon a disparate set of experiences around the world to consider the scientific, economic and historic dimensions of world water crises and issues. It's easy to believe that with oceans on many of our doorsteps, there will never be a real water crisis, but WHEN THE RIVERS RUN DRY shows otherwise, documenting major water crises and roads leading to future disasters. A 'must' for any serious discussion on water rights, management, and ecology - and appropriate for a range of readers from public libraries to college holdings.

    Diane C. Donovan, Editor
    California Bookwatch
    ...more info
  • Excellent overview with detailed examples around the world
    Most other reviews say what I would say -- it is an easy to read (I couldn't put it down, actually) overview of the global water crisis with so many different localized impacts.

    While I understand some technical experts cited limited technical details, for the lay person, I thought it was the right level of descriptions and impacts without getting bogged down. Perhaps the author could have cited more technical sources to back up more assertions for this audience, but for me, it was just right.

    For me the thing that stood out the most (that I personally hadn't heard before) was the impact of dams on greenhouse gas emissions. While it is difficult to imagine fewer dams in the developing world, it would certainly be interesting to see the impact that water-based GHG would have on Kyoto and other GHG initiatives.

    Highly recommended!...more info