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  July/August 2003 Issue
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Mixed Media

Hollywood | Books

Books

Water Follies

In Greek mythology, Poseidon wielded his mighty trident to rule over all the world’s water. Today, ten global conglomerates are exploiting the murky regulations that govern international trade to do just the same. According to Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water (The New Press, $16.95), an emerging aqua cartel is taking advantage of cross-border pacts such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade to buy up–and potentially dry up–the earth’s overextended freshwater supplies. The United Nations estimates that more than one billion people currently have no access to clean drinking water, and by 2025, the global population will grow by 2.6 billion people–all of whom will rely on the already burdened reserve.

Authors Maude Barlow, who chairs the Council of Canadians (the country’s largest public-advocacy organization), and Tony Clarke, the director of the Polaris Institute (an Ottawa-based organization that works with citizen movements seeking to curb the negative effects of globalization), dish up a fast-paced business thriller about the race to privatize and commodify the precious resource. With strong encouragement from the World Trade Organization and the World Bank, government officials from Buenos Aires to Lagos are relinquishing water-management control to industry giants like Suez and Vivendi Universal, which already serve more than 100 million customers combined. The trend continues in California and other western states, where the business of water-rights trading, particularly concerning the Colorado River, is gaining momentum. And the niche market for bottled water–led by Nestlé, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo–is proving to be lucrative, yet largely unregulated. The authors note, "No sector in the world has become more conscious of the worth of water than the private sector, which sees a profit to be made from scarcity." Blue Gold demonstrates that all of these corporations enjoy scant public accountability and have little incentive to keep water affordable. For example, the authors cite a study showing that South Africa’s post-apartheid adoption of a market-oriented water system forced those most in need to make do with less, while water flowed liberally to those who could pay, including big wasters such as commercial agriculture.

In case after case, Blue Gold also reveals the disastrous effects on the environment that result from a profit-driven approach. This occurs, Barlow and Clarke argue, because to improve their bottom line, global water lords continue to construct dams, pipeline corridors, and grand canals, often at the expense of surrounding habitats and ecosystems.

While Blue Gold examines the crisis of corporate water-grabs through the prism of international economics, Water Follies: Groundwater Pumping and the Fate of America’s Fresh Waters (Island Press, $25) focuses on the domestic environmental costs associated with relentless aquifer extraction. Author Robert Glennon, a professor of law and public policy at the University of Arizona, argues that the mining of aquifers is consuming freshwater in the United States far faster than it is being replaced, while massively degrading the environment in both wet and dry regions. Glennon illustrates a number of the unforeseen consequences of excessive pumping: giant sinkholes that pockmark the once-lush terrain of west-central Florida, plummeting fish populations in the Ipswich River in Massachusetts, and the desiccation of Arizona’s Santa Cruz River and its streamside habitat.

Glennon also explains how hard-to-replenish groundwater is being squandered on inefficient irrigation or merely to landscape trophy homes in sprawling suburban communities and quench the thirst of the ever-growing number of designer-water drinkers. In the process, water tables are dropping precipitously, which leads Glennon to caution that "the country cannot sustain even the current levels of groundwater use, never mind the projected increases in groundwater consumption over the next two decades."

U.S. groundwater laws range from weak to nonexistent, writes Glennon. In some states, landowners are free to pump as much as possible from under their property, at which point bodies of water once fed by the subterranean source are lost forever.

In Water From Heaven: The Story of Water From the Big Bang to the Rise of Civilization, and Beyond (Columbia University Press, $27.95), Robert Kandel celebrates the miracle of water, from its elegant molecular structure to its ability to wreak havoc to its pivotal role in the human drama, from the birth of agriculture to the current conflicts in the Middle East. Kandel, a senior scientist at the National Scientific Research Agency of France and a member of NASA’s Earth Radiation Science Team, astutely asks, "How much have the rivers’ vagaries, catastrophic droughts, and floods shaped the course of history?"

It must have taken a deluge of biblical proportions to fill the earth’s oceans, which now cover 71 percent of the globe. At present, the planet holds more than a quintillion tons of the world’s most essential resource, which can be found everywhere from the pulpy interior of desert cacti to tropical cloud canopies. According to Kandel, one basic principle applies: "Water and energy always flow and change their form on our planet, but they never vanish, nor are they created." (The problem, as the other authors note, is our reckless manipulation of the flow.)

Writing for the layperson, Kandel elucidates water’s myriad manifestations and contributions, including the wild gyrations of ocean currents, evaporation, precipitation, runoff, atmospheric dynamics, photosynthesis, and the difference between El Niño and La Niña. At times, the book’s minutiae can be mind-numbing (for example, the distance between either of water’s hydrogen atoms and the center oxygen atom is 0.096 billionth of a meter). Yet Kandel’s infectious sense of wonder overcomes this problem: "When you have a drink of water, you are absorbing, for a brief time, a small sample of matter carrying with it part of the history of the earth and of the universe."–Tatiana Siegel


At A Glance

High Tide in Tuvalu

Wood-Tikchik: Alaska’s Largest State Park 
photographs by Robert Glenn Ketchum,
essay by Bill Sherwonit Aperture, $45

Chains of lakes form the heart of Wood-Tikchik’s 1.6-million-acre wilderness, shown through the seasons in Ketchum’s photos. Sherwonit’s text explores its biological realm, from insect to salmon to grizzly, and ways to protect it.


New from Sierra Club Books

Water and the California Dream: Choices for the New Millennium, by David Carle, explores the role of water in creating modern California and explains how the state can restore its damaged environment by limiting its water use.

Between Species: Celebrating the Dolphin-Human Bond, edited by Toni Frohoff and Brenda Peterson, provides firsthand accounts of the intriguing relationships between humans and dolphins and outlines ways to protect the cetaceans.

Breaking Gridlock: Moving Toward Transportation That Works, by Jim Motavalli, shows how mass transit can provide relief from sprawl and unending car wars. Now in paperback.

More Information Order these titles from the Sierra Club Store by phone, (415) 977-5600, through our Web site, www.sierraclub.org/books, or by writing the store at 85 Second St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105.

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