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What happens when the world runs low on water -- the one thing critical to our survival?

When the Rivers 
Water -- The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century
Beacon Press, 320 pp., $26.95


Maybe the Apocalypse will arrive all at once. AIDS, avian flu, and tuberculosis will flourish. The Chinese and Japanese will call in their debts. The glaciers will melt and the oceans rise. Breast milk will be poisonous. Religious fundamentalists will swap nuclear salvos. Jungles and forests, rivers and swamps-all will shrivel and die. Rats, crows, and cockroaches will inherit the earth.

Many of these events are already unfolding, yet it is the particular fate of early twenty-first-century Americans to have installed leaders who notice only armed threats to our welfare. The government's inability to ward off the September 11, 2001, airplane assaults is often attributed to a "failure of imagination," but the phrase applies far more portentously to our leaders' obliviousness to the most serious security dangers we face. A nuclear attack against the United States is possible, but barring dramatic changes in the organization of human societies, environmental calamity is a certainty.

Not that doom need arrive with perfect-storm profligacy -- the occurrence of even a couple of the disasters commonly forecast by re-spected scientists would bring about at least a rough approximation of Armageddon. Indeed, part of the astonishing dilemma that hu-mans now face is the abundance of canary carcasses in our metaphorical mineshafts. The plenitude of potential disasters prevents us from reacting forcefully to any of them. Torpid, secretly despairing, we set our sights on near-term satisfactions.

Instead of taking on all the menaces at once -- likely a self-defeating task -- we might rouse ourselves by focusing on water, the one substance all organisms require. Water's availability is so taken for granted that its scarcity is probably the leading unacknowledged catastrophe waiting to happen. The world's quotient of available freshwater has remained constant since the last Ice Age, while the human population and the ingenious uses to which we've put water have grown exponentially. Now, faced with our vast overcon-sumption of groundwater and the destruction of countless rivers, lakes, and wetlands by damming and diverting, we have perhaps a couple of decades to reconfigure our relationship to water or else experience a highly disagreeable convulsion as one major nation after another loses the capacity to feed its people.

To be sure, revitalizing the bodies of water around us is a thoroughly daunting proposition, yet water is so central to our well-being that restoration would take us far down the path toward recovery of the entire planet. To restore rivers, we must stop cutting down trees in watersheds: Healthy forests reduce soil erosion, promote biodiversity, and mitigate global warming. If farmers in Mexico's Río Grande valley were to shift from water-guzzling alfalfa and cotton to less thirsty crops, fewer farmers would find themselves driven by the desertification of northern Mexico to immigrate illegally to the United States. In Pakistan, reducing upstream diversions of the Indus River to irrigate cotton fields would enable downstream farmers to stay on their land instead of abandoning it for desultory existences in Karachi slums, where militant Islamists recruit. Water's links to an intricate web of social and environmental consequences underline its centrality: Wars and coups upend regimes, but the absence of water ends civilizations.

Water at last is attracting the attention of writers and journalists -- call that the first baby step toward water restoration. Each of four useful books published on water this year depicts a facet of the burgeoning crisis. Karen Piper's Left in the Dust: How Race and Politics Created a Human and Environmental Tragedy in L.A. describes how the decision in 1920 by Los Angeles officials to further their city's growth by diverting water from Owens Lake, 200 miles to the north, concentrated tens of millions of tons of arsenic, cadmium, and other naturally occurring heavy metals in the desiccating lake bed. Once the lake was dry, winds funneling through the Owens Valley kicked up blinding dust storms, dispersing toxic dust over 1940s Japanese internment camps, across Paiute Indian reservations, and throughout the American West, causing pulmonary fibrosis, lung cancer, lupus, asthma, and other diseases. William Ashworth's Ogallala Blue: Water and Life on the High Plains deftly portrays the ongoing draining of the Ogallala Aquifer beneath the American Great Plains and the agricultural, social, and political upheaval likely to occur when enough farmers' wells go dry. One possible consequence of the Ogallala's emptying, the diversion of water from the Great Lakes to keep the farmers in business, is the subject of yet another book, The Great Lakes Water Wars, by Peter Annin, which limns the intensifying interest in transporting Great Lakes water as far away as Asia and the death of the lakes' ecosystem that could result.

The most ambitious of the four books is Fred Pearce's When the Rivers Run Dry: Water -- The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century, a brisk, alarming primer on water scarcity. Pearce has assembled a compendium of international water debacles, intertwined with occasionally glib expositions on climate change, international disputes over rights to dam and divert rivers, and the link between water scarcity and diminished food production. The book's biggest assets are Pearce's willingness to travel to the far-flung sites of nearly all the world's water crisis regions, from the Aral Sea to the Yellow River, and his capacity to describe what he has found in succinct, 10-page chapters.

The idea of mastering water is inherently grandiose, often delusional, and the structures humans have built to perpetrate their conceits account for many of the world's largest edifices. This lends the structures' stories a larger-than-life, stranger-than- fiction aura. In Libya, Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi has so far spent $27 billion on the Great Manmade River, a 2,000-mile network of giant underground tunnels intended to connect a vast aquifer beneath the desert to the agricultural fields along the country's Mediterranean coast. To construct what ranks among the world's largest civil engineering projects, Qaddafi hired none other than Brown & Root, the Halliburton subsidiary that also delivers logistical support to the U.S. military in Iraq. Perhaps fittingly, the Great Manmade River has been no more successful than the Iraq reconstruction, as its cost and scant flow have so far produced some of the most expensive wheat ever grown. For a fraction of the homegrown grain's cost, Qaddafi could have imported wheat and saved Libya's unreplenishable groundwater for emergencies. As a British water expert tells Pearce, "It is madness to use this water for agriculture."

But water madness is pandemic. Irrigation has picked up the salt that once was harmlessly borne down rivers to the sea, and instead has spread it across at least one-fifth of the world's agricultural land, gradually poisoning the soil. Thanks to dams and other water diversions, Central Asia's Aral Sea, once the world's fourth-largest lake, has shrunken into three pools that together hold just one-tenth of the Aral's former volume; Africa's Lake Chad has shriveled from 10,000 square miles to 200; the three lakes along the Iran-Afghanistan border fed by Afghanistan's Helmand River entirely dried up in 1998, causing havoc among 250,000 residents of the region; even the world's largest freshwater ecosystem, South America's Pantanal, is likely to succumb to a vast canal project. So many once-powerful rivers no longer flow all the way to their mouths -- the Nile, Yellow, Indus, Colorado, and Rio Grande among them -- that hydrologists have devised a deceptively bland term for them: "closed basins."

Most urgently, humans face a groundwater crisis. Water tables are plunging as farmers in China, India, Pakistan, and the United States draw from irreplaceable sources of underground water to irrigate their crops; in many instances they are pumping water with government-subsidized energy to grow water-guzzling crops such as rice, sugarcane, alfalfa, and cotton, which are themselves sometimes subsidized. The water is starting to run out. In rural western India, Pearce reports, "half the traditional hand-dug wells and millions of tube wells have dried up," and residents are abandoning whole districts. Pearce finds a farmer who has given up growing crops because he can make more money simply by selling the increasingly dear groundwater beneath his land. He tells Pearce, "We are all trying to make as much money as we can before the water runs out." Substitute for "water" such words as "oil," "timber," and "minerals" and the statement neatly sums up globalization's fatal flaw.

Through the past half-century, the green revolution boosted food production with copious applications of fertilizer and water, but as more countries scrape the bottom of their aquifers in coming decades, those gains will be threatened. By the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization's calculations, water shortages already limit production on a third of all agricultural land. Affluent countries may ward off hunger by importing "virtual water" in the form of grain, but poorer countries will not have that option.

Like many environmental books, When the Rivers Run Dry is more persuasive in delineating the looming crisis than in prescribing solutions. Pearce is surely right to call for a return to traditional water-gathering technologies that have been underrated. In the sere Indian state of Rajasthan, the use of ponds and small dams to harvest rainwater is at the heart of a social movement that has replenished aquifers and revived abandoned springs on about 2,500 square miles of land. But to head off the Apocalypse, we need to think in a more encompassing way. We'd be wise, for instance, to quit obstructing rivers in developing nations with monumental dams and to invest in energy alternatives to hydroelectricity. Justice requires that we acknowledge the right of all people to cheap access to water for basic needs, but beyond that, water should be priced to reflect its scarcity. In such a realm, farmers who now use an astounding 3,000 gallons of water to grow enough feed for a single quarter-pound beef patty would likely shift to less thirsty crops, and meat consumption would decline. Conservation and all it entails, from the elimination of suburban lawns in dry regions to the expansion of drip irrigation in agriculture, would reign. The hope is that a blue revolution will follow the green one -- that humanity's deepening environmental crisis will prompt a change in the collective consciousness, which on its way toward reviving the natural world begins by valuing water.

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Kodachrome Transcendence

Galen Rowell, A Retrospective

Before his tragic death in a plane crash in 2002 at the age of 62, Galen Rowell could be found, even into his later years, lashed to a sheer rock face, peering through his camera lens. On the day he died, he was returning home to California's eastern Sierra, not far from where he captured this image of a lone cloud hovering above Split Rock. It was taken in 1976, just a few years after he shot his first cover story for National Geographic. Rowell was the quintessential adventure photographer, an expert climber and mountaineer, but he was also an artist whose reverence for nature and skillful manipulation of light prompted photographer Frans Lanting to remember him as a "modern transcendentalist" in Galen Rowell, A Retrospective (Sierra Club Books, $50), a collection of images and essays.

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Jacques Leslie is the author of Deep Water: The Epic Struggle Over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

OnEarth. Fall 2006
Copyright 2006 by the Natural Resources Defense Council