By Chet Yarbrough
By Fred Pearce
Narrated by Tony Craine
“When the Rivers Run Dry” was published in 2007. The author is an environmental journalist based in London. He has written several global environment and development books—the first as long ago as 1989 and the latest as recent as 2012. Pearce has written for US publications like “Audubon”, “Foreign Policy”, Popular Science”, “Seed”, and “Time”.
Pearce writes a rambling and semi-optimistic history of fresh water resource in the world. Pearce’s story rambles because of the wide territory covered from seas to rivers to underground aquifers. Pearce exposes both short-sighted and visionary ideas about water. Though he skewers the lack of foresight and negative consequence of industrial pollution, he suggests that some old and new ideas about fresh water conservation may preserve human existence.
The Colorado River in North America serves 30 million people with a series of dams and diversions that affect the ecology of the southwest. Evidence is clearly visible in the low water conditions of Lake Mead on the border of Arizona and Nevada.
The dams along the Colorado have eliminated natural delta formation in the Gulf of California. River depletion reduces water flow to Mexico by 90 percent of its former provision. Pearce suggests that Arizona will hit a wall of restrained growth because of lack of potable water. Water use projections in the Southwest exceed the capacity of the Colorado River. There is a growing movement to reduce the number of dams on the river but without conservation, the level of the Colorado will continue to fall.
Pearce touches the history of the Indus River in Pakistan. The Indus is the primary freshwater source of Pakistan’s 170 million people. The Indus supports 90 percent of the agriculture of Pakistan. Pearce argues that it is critical for nations like Pakistan to conserve water by modifying their agricultural production. Conservation ideas are to irrigate fields differently, change crops to consume less water, and carefully calculate the true cost of river dams and diversions. Pearce shows how culturally disastrous poor water uses are by noting upstream property owners’ violent conflicts with downstream users. A part of the fundamental conflict between Pakistan and India is in threatened diversion of the Indus River resource.
The Aral Sea basin was a thriving muskrat pelt industry and fishery resource in the former Soviet Union. The Amu Darya and Syr Darya fed the Aral Sea but the Soviets in the 1960s created over 20,000 miles of canals and many dams, with reservoirs, that diverted the two rivers and depleted the Aral Sea. The canals were horribly inefficient. The canals leaked the precious water resource before it reached its destination. The canals fed cotton and wheat fields that are notorious high water consumption crops. The Aral Sea became a few lakes, some of which became highly salted. The Amu Darya is no longer a continuous river. The Syr Darya still flows but it is polluted. Some say the river is so contaminated that it cannot be used for consumption or irrigation. Effort is being made to restore the river and increase its flow into the Aral Sea.
In the end, Pearce infers the pending water crisis can be averted through conservation and a more precise calculation of the real costs of water resource contamination, containment, and diversion. Consumption is one side of the equation but the penultimate objective is to make intelligent, informed decisions about how water should be managed to preserve the eco-system for continued life.