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The Big Thirst: Why We Can't Let Water Remain Invisible in Our Lives

June 13, 2011

Posted by Don Dunnington at June 13, 2011 04:06 PM

Charles Fishman worries about our water ignorance. Water is present everywhere we look; yet we know so little about it. 

Our languages are full of water words and metaphors. Our cultures and religions are filled to the brim with water stories and symbols. In the Western world, for the last hundred years nearly all urban (and now rural) residents can turn a tap—even in a desert—and water comes gushing into our glasses, our tubs, our showers and pours out on our lawns and gardens, with no effort by us and at so little cost as to seem free.

A Global Water Tour
Fishman sets out to cure our ignorance in a breathless recitation of water facts and extended tours of water use and misuse from the desert water fountains and golf courses in Las Vegas to a drought-stricken Atlanta, Georgia. From Southern California to New Delhi to Australia, Fishman tells the many stories of today's droughts and floods and the long history of water's impact on societies. Reading Fishman's accounts of how we use and misuse water, we're reminded of how large the distribution and use problems are and how little we seem to be able deal with them, even with disaster staring us in the face.

Fishman points out that while watersheds are very large systems, unlike other global environmental issues, the problems in one water basin do not spill over into another system. So he takes us on a journey through many different systems, and many different sorts of users. We visit IBM's huge water ultra-purification system in Burlington, Vermont, where they need a staggering amount of super-pure water to produce computer chips. We learn how wool washing profoundly impacts the water supply in arid Australia, and how a leading wool processor has devised ways to save prodigious amounts of water and money.

The Ultimate Trivial Pursuit for Water Enthusiasts
If you have an appetite for water factoids, Fishman has a smorgasbord of delights for you:

  • Water is never destroyed or used up. Today we're drinking the same water the dinosaurs drank. (Is that Tyrannosaurus Rex pee in your glass?)
  • Water is the lubricant that allows the continents to move
  • A 150-pound man is 90 pounds water
  • The average American flushes 18.5 gallons of clean drinking water down the toilet every day
  • An IBM chip factory in Vermont uses 3.2 million gallons of water a day
  • In water-short Australia, a single wool processing factory uses 380,000 gallons of water daily
  • Also in Australia, a farmer pours 6 billion liters of water over 10,450 acres of rice fields
  • A two-liter bottle of coke takes five liters of water to produce it.
  • 49 percent of water use in the US is for power plants
  • The electricity you use at home requires 250 gallons of water per person per day
  • 1 ton of steel takes 300 tons of water
  • At lift-off the space shuttles used one million gallons of water per minute (not to keep it cool but to buffer it against being shaken apart by the noise)
  • Of the world's 6.9 billion people, 1.1 billion don't have adequate water
  • 5,000 children die every day from lack of water or diseases from tainted drinking water

And it goes on. Many of the more interesting tidbits are about the science of water, some of which remains a mystery to those who study it. When it comes to solutions for the way households, industries and farmers use water, Fishman doesn't offer a prescription. He seems to favor market pricing that would force all water users to be more prudent, and provide an incentive for industries to be more productive in their water use.

We Pay for Essential Things
"Except for air and water," he notes, "…we pay for almost everything else in life that is essential; we entrust everything, from electricity to hospitals, to private companies." But in a bow to the Hollywood view of private companies, Fishman worries a few pages later that "…it's also vital not to let business get so far ahead that we cede the future of water to commercial interests."

Despite his wavering on how far to trust business, Fishman more often than not seems to come down on the same side as the businesses that must devise and produce the technical solutions to maintain our lifeline to water. "Technology is making it easier to solve almost any water problem," he declares. The real problem is getting the people and their political leaders to recognize the problems, and understand and accept the technical solutions (such as getting over the yuck-factor of drinking recycled water).

As Fishman points out early and often in his very readable and informative book, "…running out of water is like slipping off the edge of a cliff—it's hard to be saved." Fishman wants us to save ourselves before it's too late to be rescued.

- The Big Thirst by Charles Fishman is published by Free Press (400 pages). I bought it as a Kindle eBook on Amazon for $12.99.

Don Dunnington
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