Throughout the millennia, human beings have existed in a delicate balance with water, beset sometimes by drought, sometimes by flood. In her new book Water Wars: Drought, Flood, Folly, and the Politics of Thirst, Diane Ward observes that today "1.4 billion [people], almost twenty percent of those living on the planet, don't have an adequate supply of clean water." At the same time, "an overload of water endangers other peoples and places." Venice is sinking into the sea, Holland's delta is threatened as never before, and in Louisiana more than a million acres an area larger than the state of Rhode Island has disappeared into the sea. Floods increasingly threaten the majority of the world's people who live in coastal areas or on floodplains.
Ward, whose rich background includes science writing, has surveyed water systems throughout the world including India, Pakistan, Egypt, China, Holland and many parts of the U.S. Her description of their strengths and weaknesses makes interesting reading. She looks at two momentous changes that are aggravating our eternal struggle for water. We add 90 million people each year to the world's population, which both increases the water needed and makes less water available, dirtied by inevitable human, industrial and agricultural wastes. And global climate change, arguably "the biggest story of our lifetimes," Ward observes, may fundamentally alter the planet on which we live, causing a catalog of calamities. Ward's insights will be valuable as we confront worsening water crises in the future. Small hydroelectric power plants that can cleanly meet the energy needs of communities, although certainly not a complete solution, can be extremely helpful, she notes.
Near its conclusion, Water Wars cites tensions, skirmishes and full-blown wars over water. The attempt by Jordan and its Arab neighbors to divert water from Israel for their own use was a major cause of the Six Days War. Subsequent water agreements in the Middle East, and in the South Asian trouble spot of India and Pakistan, have prevented new conflicts, but throughout the world demand keeps rising and supply keeps falling.
Of course the water dilemma too much in some places, too little in others is beginning to affect us right here in the U.S. Ward emphasizes the need for public involvement in the critical decisions about water that will have to be made in the future. Water Wars can help us make those decisions wisely. Albert Huebner, a physicist, writes widely on science.