Is Water The New Oil? Water Matters Explains The Crisis and Solutions (Book Review)

Water. It's one of the most essential elements of life on Earth. Yet nearly 1 billion people don't have access to safe drinking water. Our fresh water supplies are badly polluted and over-allocated. And the waste that occurs from the agricultural industry to manufacturing sectors is practically criminal. As supplies disappear and populations soar, will our future wars be fought over this precious resource? Will governments and corporations continue to seek ownership of and limit access to what has been declared a basic human right? How can we celebrate water, appreciate it, and ensure both humans and ecosystems alike have enough of it? In a series of essays by some of the world's top writers, experts and activists, Water Matters attempts to answer these questions and shed light on the alarming situation at hand.
Photos via Jaymi Heimbuch

With essays from Barbara Kingsolver, Bill McKibben, Maude Barlow, Elizabeth Royte, and many others, as well as compelling images from some of the world's top photographers, Water Matters is a delicious mix of tutorial on the status of water, a literary exploration, and photographic journey. And it starts with the basic notion that "Water Is Life."

Author Barbara Kingsolver writes in her essay, "Water is the visible face of climate and therefore, climate change. Shifting rain patterns flood some regions and dry up others as nature demonstrates a grave physics lesson: Hot air holds more water molecules than cold."

It's true that we're seeing water represent massive shifts in the planet's systems. In recent years we've watches crops and livestock waste away during long-lasting droughts, while in other areas unusually powerful storms create catastrophic floods. Water has always ruled human life, but our familiarity with its methods is changing.

We have worked hard to master nature -- water specifically. We've bent rivers and even reversed their flow; we've drilled into the deepest aquifers and are still busy emptying them despite the poisons they hold; and we've created technology to even conjure it up from thin air. Yet despite this willful attempt at mastering water, we're finding that it is slipping right through our fingers.

Even in the US, where we've grown accustomed to the abundance of water, we're finding out that we happened to settle during an unusually wet time in the continent's history, as Christina Roessler writes in her essay "Is Conservation Enough." The Southwest is drying up, and it's because we keep sticking more straws into an already overburdened Colorado River, a river that historically has not run as high as we thought it did.

Yet those living in the West and Southwest who are used to water conservation can teach us a great deal about living with less, or rather, living with what we need rather than living wastefully. Can the rest of the nation catch on fast enough, before aquifers and reservoirs dry up? It's not just a fear-mongering question, but one we have to honestly ask ourselves, and fast.


Water Matters explores this question and so much more. The book includes essays on topics as diverse as the ways human spiritualities and religions have evolved around water to the problems of privatization of water, from the damage dams have caused for ecosystems and communities to the problem of bottled water -- not just the issues with plastics but the draining of local water supplies by companies like Coca Cola, Nestle, and Pepsi.
READ MORE: Will 7 Billion People Make Us Smarten Up About Water? A Look at Technology, Supplies, and Politics

The issues with water are vast, but it is simply because water is a necessity of life. Yet, most of us know so little about it. Brock Dolman contributes an essay in the book called "Watershed Literacy" -- do you know where you water comes from? And no, not just which water utility company, or even which aquifer or dam, but which mountain range's snowpack, which river, which delta? Do you really, honestly know the source of the water you drink? Odds are, it will take a little research for you to know how you got the water that came out of your tap.

QUIZ: What's Your Water IQ?

We undervalue water -- it is one of the cheapest goods and is barely metered in most of the US. If we were to take the time to understand how we get our water, what our consumption of it means to the ecosystems from which it is drawn and to which it would naturally flow, would we value it more? Would we place a true cost price tag on it and ramp up conservation efforts?

And yes, conservation has to start here in the US. As Bill McKibbon writes in his essay "Poisoning The Well," "The world has become too small in the 21st century for any nation to export its problems. And if you think these problems are simply those of the developing world, then visit Las Vegas. Or Phoenix. Or..."

Yet we don't have to go to the driest spots of the US to feel the burden. We're drying up supplies in the Southeast as well, one of the wettest areas in the US. Yes, nature is shifting and where and when water hits is changing, but the extent of the problem is something we're doing to ourselves through poor use of resources. In her essay "Shortage In The Land of Plenty," Cynthia Barnett writes, "It's not surprising to see AMericans slugging it out over who gets how much water. We expect such conflicts in water-scarce regions of the West, where some states have been duking it out for more than a century. What's astonishing is to watch water scarcity and strife emerge in the Southast -- the wettest region in the lower 48. And what's maddening is that we did it to ourselves."

So what will we do to get ourselves out of this crevice where we've jammed ourselves between a rock and hard, dry place? As Barnett notes, the solution isn't in water wars, where we fight to get more and more. It's in helping each other figure out how to use less and less.

This is the second book that Tara Lohan, editor of Water Matters, has helped create about the water crisis, the first one being Water Consiousness published in 2008. In a conversation, Lohan noted that the global water crisis is huge, and so specific by region that figuring out the most important issues to highlight in a single book is quite a challenge. The team went into this book with the idea that they wanted to help readers connect the dots on how water affects human health, the food crisis, human dignity and so on.

The team also clearly spent a lot of time on the design of the book. No matter your learning style or reading preference -- if you like infographics or long essays, photographs or maps -- you will be able to get a ton of information from this book.

Lohan's dream with this book is not only to help spark understanding and awareness around water issues, but also to insert water into more of the conversation within the environmental movement. Energy and pollution, for example, get a ton of attention from advocates but water -- our most precious and necessary resource for daily life -- gets relatively little attention. Lohan noted that she hopes the book will help get politicians to pay more attention to water infrastructure and regulation so that we can see an improvement in our consumption and systems, and balance of supplies overall.

The information packed into the relatively small Water Matters book is surprising. It is intriguing for anyone who is just learning about the extent of water issues in the US and globally, and yet is still entirely compelling for those who are well versed in the topic.

From prose to graphs, from art to explanatory essays, from activism tips to a quiz on improving conservation at home, the book has everything -- including a strong recommendation from me to buy or borrow a copy at your earliest opportunity.

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Tags: Books | Drinking Water | Water Crisis

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